Is Perry-Powers Tension About College Rivalry, Policy?

Is this about Bill Powers or UT’s tower?

Tensions between Gov. Rick Perry’s administration and Powers, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, are rising, sucking up legislative time and pitting lawmakers, prominent alumni and higher-education critics against one another in a running argument over politics, rivalries and what a public university is supposed to be.

Start with a University of Texas System administration that had the gumption to deflect an embrace from conservatives who wanted to make over the academy.

The “seven breakthrough solutions” unveiled in 2008 were designed to bring some market-oriented changes to the state’s colleges and universities. A couple of those hogged the attention: rating professors, based on student assessments; separating teaching and research; and including revenue as one measure of whether a program or class should continue. Perry implicitly endorsed the idea by headlining a daylong conference where the ideas were unveiled, ensuring the attendance of top regents and administrators from the state’s public colleges.

The Austin guys defied it. So did the Texas A&M University System, but the chancellor at the time, Mike McKinney, a friend, adviser and former legislative colleague of Perry’s, has left that particular field of battle. John Sharp, a former comptroller, replaced him in 2011, with a couple of advantages. A&M was no hungrier for reform ideas than anybody else, but McKinney took the political blows and Sharp got to waltz in as the bringer of peace. At UT-Austin, Powers, still in power, personifies the resistance. He is in harm’s way politically, but he is quite popular with professional Longhorns throughout Texas.

The undercurrents of that bickering offer a gold mine for the conspiratorial set, with fuel for every obsession: politics, deep school rivalries, policy and governance.

One theory is that the governor — an A&M graduate and carrier of the overcompensating inferiority complex that afflicts many Aggies who are tired of UT always being first in line — is trying to right the order of things. This take has Perry and Sharp, former classmates at A&M, cheerfully tying UT’s shoelaces together to allow A&M to take its rightful place at center stage.

The rivalry theme bleeds into the political theme, most recently in the 2010 Republican primary for governor that pitted Kay Bailey Hutchison, then a U.S. senator, carrying the Longhorn banner, against Perry, carrying the Aggie flag.

If this sounds far-fetched or trivial, you might be new to Texas politics.

Hutchison made the Austin announcement of her candidacy — part of a multicity tour — at the UT-Austin Alumni Center. Perry — witness his recent appointments to the A&M and UT boards — has more Aggie than Republican in his personal DNA. Some of the same people populating the UT lines in the battle with the governor supported Hutchison in the primary. Many Aggies stuck with the governor.

The governance motif is getting attention from lawmakers and will slow the debate for the eight weeks between now and the end of the legislative session in May. Powers is under pressure from the UT System regents. His supporters — count the lieutenant governor and most of the Senate in this group — contend that the UT regents are micromanaging and have left their roles as policymakers to meddle in the operations of their most visible school. The lawmakers, not above a little micromanagement of their own, are talking about constraints on the regents.

It all circles back to policy. When lawmakers have gone home and — whenever, by whatever mechanism — Powers is no longer the president of UT-Austin, then what? If this is a power snit based on personality, removing the personalities will end it. Squabbling aside, Powers, who has been in office since 2006, has served about as long as most university presidents serve. The policy question will be answered, in part, by the person who is chosen to succeed him.

Skip past the current battle and think of this as a transition. One viewpoint will prevail. Perry and his regents and supporters, with their ideas of how to reform higher education stand in this corner. Powers and the Longhorn Nation stand in that one.

The next set of leaders will have to stand somewhere, and that will tell us who prevailed. 

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