In Final Months, Cigarroa Rises to His Own Defense

The University of Texas System Board of Regents names former University of Alabama president Dr. Guy Bailey as finalist for UTRGV president. April 28, 2014
The University of Texas System Board of Regents names former University of Alabama president Dr. Guy Bailey as finalist for UTRGV president. April 28, 2014

Before he returns to a full-time career as a transplant surgeon in 2015, Francisco Cigarroa intends to spend his final months as chancellor of the University of Texas System combating what he says are misunderstandings, including at the upper echelons of academia, about his nearly six-year tenure.

“One has to be proactive,” Cigarroa said, “because I have not really been pleased with the direction of where the story has gone, because it’s wrong. We have to make our record better-known.” He indicated an intention to travel the country, talking to editorial boards and others to lay out a record of which he is “extremely proud.”

Cigarroa has spent much of the last three years caught in the middle of public conflicts among members of the UT System board of regents, the University of Texas at Austin administration, and legislators over how the flagship university should be managed.

While acknowledging that his tenure has corresponded with a period of political turmoil, he said it also was a time of major investment by the system in UT-Austin. He objected to insinuations that he has done Gov. Rick Perry’s bidding on policy or personnel decisions.

As an example, the chancellor noted a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education in July by Hunter R. Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, an organization of research institutions, as an “extremely troubling” example. Rawlings described an effort orchestrated by Cigarroa and Perry to push out Bill Powers, the UT-Austin president and chairman of the AAU.

 

At the time, Cigarroa had asked Powers to resign or face termination. The two ultimately agreed to a timeline that allowed Powers to resign next June.

“While you cited the politicization of higher education in your message and implied that the situation between President Powers and Chancellor Cigarroa was politically driven, be assured that it was not,” Cigarroa and Paul Foster, the chairman of the UT System board, wrote to Rawlings this month in a three-page rebuttal

Rather than a personality conflict, Rawlings wrote that UT was experiencing a “clash between conflicting views of the purpose of universities in society.” He tied the situation to a set of controversial higher education policy proposals that Perry had touted in 2008 and encouraged regents throughout the state to adopt at their university systems. The proposals included rewarding teachers financially, based on student evaluations, and separating teaching and research budgets. Rawlings also questioned Perry’s push for Texas universities to offer degrees for $10,000.

“At no time have we tried to separate education from research,” Cigarroa said this week. “We have never directed any campus to do a $10,000 degree.”

In their letter, Cigarroa and Foster said that raising the specter of a six-year-old set of concepts “that were never implemented by the UT System paints an unfair picture of the system and higher education in Texas.”

Rawlings declined to comment for this article.

Rather than adopting the governor-backed proposals in 2011, Cigarroa proposed his own vision for the system, calling for establishing medical schools in Austin and South Texas and committing financial resources to faculty recruitment and retention.

Today, both medical schools are under development, and the chancellor said that based on data reviewed by the system, “the idea that we are losing faculty is entirely false.”

 

But those who objected to the policies pitched by the governor remain worried. Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which has been critical of the UT board, said, “The ideology driving those efforts is very much alive.”

She said there were still concerns about the governance of the UT System. This week, a legislative committee approved a motion censuring a regent for disruptive conduct. It also chided the board for “a loss of institutional control.”

Cigarroa said he hoped the board and the rest of the UT community would move forward.

“By any metric you take a look at across the University of Texas,” he said, “we’ve made significant progress. For people to be conveying otherwise, I think they have a different agenda, and that agenda is not in the best interest of the University of Texas.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster is a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.