Though he was not in attendance Monday, University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers was featured prominently during the first two hours of a tense meeting of the Senate Nominations Committee, in which three nominees to the University of Texas System Board of Regents were considered.
Gov. Rick Perry has nominated Houston energy executive Jeff Hildebrand and McAllen municipal judge Ernest Aliseda to the board, and he has also put up El Paso businessman Paul Foster for reappointment. Amid controversy over governance by the current UT System Board of Regents, made up entirely of Perry appointees, the nominees’ approval has garnered extra attention.
Foster, who has served on the board for six years, was particularly grilled Monday regarding Powers. He said he believes Powers does an "excellent job," but indicated that the president can be difficult to work with. "He has been a challenge to the board at times," Foster said of Powers.
Asked about the potential dismissal of the president of the system’s flagship university, Foster said, "That is not even on the radar. It’s never been discussed." Though, he conceded that he had heard talk of how Powers' "tenure has gone on long enough."
"I've heard discussion about transition, which is different than discussion about termination," he said, not specifying where he had heard the discussion.
State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said Foster was "parsing a little bit."
The Nominations Committee met for two hours Monday morning — its last planned meeting of the session — before breaking to conduct other business. It met again for more than two hours in the afternoon before concluding the meeting without voting. Committee Chairman Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, indicated that a final vote on the three UT nominees is expected later Monday evening or on Tuesday.
Hildebrand and Aliseda received less questioning than Foster. Hildebrand said he believed the focus on controversy was "tarnishing the brand" and said it was time for the university and the system to "move on."
All three nominees committed to only dismissing a president if the system's chancellor recommended the firing whether a bill making such a policy a requirement — Senate Bill 15 by Seliger — becomes law or not. The bill is on its way to the governor's desk. All three nominees agreed that they would "govern through the chancellor."
The regents must be approved during the session or they will not be allowed to join the board. If they are not approved, Perry could place anyone else he wants to on the board after the session ends in a week. Anyone appointed at that time would not have to go through the Senate's approval process for nearly two years.
Earlier in the session, lawmakers have accused regents of being on a "witch hunt" targeting Powers, and apparently some have not backed down from that stance.
"I think you are on a mission, and I hope I'm wrong," state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told the three nominees. He told them, that if it were up to him, he would vote against their nominations because he does not want to be even "a small part" of any effort to terminate Powers. Whitmire is not a member of the committee.
The feelings of another regent, Alex Cranberg, who is not up for consideration, were also made apparent in Monday’s hearing. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, highlighted an email from Cranberg to a friend explaining why he did not want to attend Powers' State of the University address in September 2012. Cranberg wrote that Powers' "agenda is egotistical; to be a heroic figure and not a doer."
"I actually expect him to hold out an olive branch," Cranberg wrote. "But that's if he's smart and wants to accomplish something."
Following the discussion of his email Monday, Cranberg sent a statement to the Tribune, saying: "I always hope for positive collaboration. We've all accomplished a lot, and could accomplish even more without the distractions of false fears."
His mention of an olive branch played into lawmakers' concerns about war-related language surrounding the board. In an interview with Texas Monthly, Gene Powell, the chairman of the UT System board, repeatedly referred to the "fog of war" surrounding the board. In a recently revealed email from Perry to some regents, including Cranberg and Foster, the governor compared the board's struggle to World War II's Battle of the Bulge.
In his 2011 State of the University address, Powers invoked the Civil War, saying, "To paraphrase Lincoln, we are a house divided about our fundamental mission and character." In his email, Cranberg indicated that it was that 2011 speech that had turned him off from attending Powers' 2012 speech.
Foster told senators Monday that he was not sure what battle Perry was referring to in his email, though he noted that regents have been trying to reform higher education and had been subjected to significant outside criticism. He repeatedly said UT-Austin supporters had engaged in a one-sided "PR campaign" that was a source of frustration, though he told lawmakers he would make more of an effort to reach out to those groups in his nomination was approved.
Foster also questioned some of the actions of his fellow regents. He said the level to which regents were engaging in investigative behavior had reached a level that was "unhealthy." He also said that a trip made by Regent Wallace Hall to Washington, D.C., to participate in a meeting with university representatives and a national organization regarding how to report in-kind software donations was "right on the line" of appropriate.
Gary Susswein, a spokesman for Powers, responded to the morning's hearing with a statement, saying, "President Powers greatly appreciates the strong support he has received from the Legislature today and all year long. Lawmakers' commitment to UT-Austin will ensure it remains one of the best public universities in the state, nation and world — and President Powers looks forward to working closely with the Regents to make that happen."
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, warned the regents that Powers is "not only respected and admired, but I would venture to say, loved by members of the Legislature." She said support for the president, as well as UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, was at an all-time high in the Capitol.
All three appointees assured the senators that they had no intention of firing Powers or of encouraging him to leave at the present time.
In closing, Hegar offered the group four words of advice: "Move beyond the controversy."
After the hours of questioning, Zaffirini said: "I think it was very productive. These three nominees seemed to be more in agreement with our perspective than I expected them to be." She particularly noted Foster's comments about some of the actions of his fellow regents.
Throughout the day's hearing, lawmakers floated the possibility of Foster becoming the chairman of the board, though he did not address that possibility directly.
"On the board, I'm viewed as relatively neutral and hopefully can demonstrate some leadership to calm things," he said. Should his reappointment be confirmed, he said he would do a better job of reaching out to legislators and others when they express concerns. "We've operated in a vacuum," he said of the board, "and probably didn't even realize it."
Melinda Hill Perrin, a member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group that has repeatedly expressed concerns about the board's actions, said: "I was here to see there would be a thorough vetting of the nominees, and I am pleased to say that they did have that vetting. I think it was healthy for the nominees and healthy for the senators to begin reconciliation."