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An Advantage for Powers, for Eight More Weeks

There are only eight weeks until the legislative session ends and most lawmakers go home, which means time may be running out for defenders of Bill Powers and the University of Texas at Austin.

University of Texas at Austin President, William Powers - Dec. 14, 2011

The tension between the University of Texas System, its flagship university in Austin and Texas lawmakers, including a majority of the Senate, does not appear to be dissipating. But there are only eight weeks until the legislative session ends and most of those lawmakers go home.

Descriptions of the situation often boil it down to a battle between alleged rival camps, one led by Gov. Rick Perry and the other by University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers, and lean heavily on buzzwords like “micromanagement,” “transparency” and “witch hunt.”

The specifics of the actual skirmishes are more complex — the latest fight is over who should conduct what many consider an unnecessary external review of an internal review that was externally reviewed — which means that they fall under the jurisdiction of several legislative committees.

Testimony surrounding the subject of all these reviews, a controversial and now-defunct “forgivable loan” program run by the University of Texas Law School Foundation, has already been heard in the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations. It is expected to come up in the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, which was created for the purpose of digging into the tension at UT.

On Wednesday, the Senate Higher Education Committee held a hearing to discuss a bill by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, that would put more checks and training requirements on regents. Meanwhile, prospective new regents, appointed by Perry, are waiting to be considered in Senate Nominations.

The installment of Perry’s last round of regent appointees, who were not heavily scrutinized by the nominations committee, on the UT board in 2011 sparked an ongoing period of distrust and controversy. If that makes the committee members wary of the latest group, which includes the re-appointment of Paul Foster, who many believe may be the next chairman, then there are a few ways this could play out.

The committee can vote approve the appointees, vote against their appointments or finish the session without ever giving them a hearing. In that final case, their specific nominations are dead, but then Perry can install whomever else he wants on the board. And those interim appointees won’t be subject to confirmation for another nearly two years.

This perfectly illustrates the conundrum for those that are worried about Powers’ and UT-Austin’s standing. Unless all parties are able to talk it out in the many committee hearings they will have the opportunity to, or lawmakers pass bold legislation to rein in board members, there will be little standing between the regents and the university after sine die.

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