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Agenda Texas: UT Regents vs. the Legislature

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: Ahead of tomorrow's University of Texas System regents meeting, we take a look at the tensions brewing between regents, UT-Austin President Bill Powers and the Legislature.

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It’s a battle that has inflamed passions on both sides and even brought one lawmaker to tears.

No, it’s not school funding — or even abortion. On its face, it’s an investigation over how the University of Texas Law School Foundation ran a forgivable loan program.

But the saga is being described by some, and rather emotionally by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, as a character assassination of UT-Austin President Bill Powers.

“This man deserves better treatment then what he’s getting. I am really upset about this. This issue is bigger than just UT-Austin and President Powers, although I’m very interested in that," Dewhurst said recently from the Senate dais during a resolution recognizing the work Powers has done at UT. "This is about the reputation of the state of Texas." 

So let’s back up a second and give a summary of the action so far.

Former UT Law School dean Larry Sager was forced out in 2011 over his handling of the foundation, including the discovery that he had received a half-million-dollar forgivable loan from the foundation.

That triggered a review of the foundation’s practices, including how it functioned when Powers was dean of the law school. That report came back citing some problems but mostly clearing Powers of any wrongdoing.

But in a split vote, the UT System Board of Regents disregarded that study and commissioned another on foundation management. That didn’t sit well with some lawmakers, who called the move a "witch hunt" and an attempt to dig up dirt on Powers in order to fire him.

“As chancellor of the University of Texas System, I do not believe that it is a witch hunt," Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said.

He thinks the additional study is fine. But he added that by many measures, Powers has been a successful president.

"In regards to the work plan and in regards to the framework for advancing excellence, I would have to say that President Powers is doing his job," Cigarroa said.

So a couple of lawmakers have asked UT regents for documents on their investigation to determine if the regents have ulterior motives.

That’s brings us to a regent meeting set for Thursday morning. That’s when the board will decide whether or not to agree to lawmakers’ requests for records. They’ll also vote whether to have the attorney general, rather than a private firm, conduct the external review of the law school foundation.

The Tribune’s Reeve Hamilton has been following the tensions between Powers and the Regents. He said it all goes back to the installation of a new group of regents who appeared ready to implement higher education reforms pushed by Gov. Rick Perry.

“That created this sense of distrust, where the traditional academics, like the Bill Powerses of the world, did not trust this new group of regents. And that distrust has never gone away," Hamilton said. "They have different philosophies about higher education that are only reconcilable to a certain point.”

But tomorrow’s votes aren’t about repairing or not repairing the relationship with Powers.

“This vote tomorrow is all about the relationship between the regents and the Capitol," Hamilton said. "And it’s a major fork in the road. The regents can vote one way and start to calm things down. Or they can vote another way and things will reach a fever pitch of tension.”

A vote to turn over documents and allow an investigation calms the waters. Voting against either or both of those will bring us to that fever pitch.

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