Gov. Rick Perry's nominees to the University of Texas System Board of Regents successfully completed a rocky journey to confirmation by the Texas Senate on Friday. Each one was confirmed by a vote of 30 to one.
The opposing vote came from state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who previously said he believed Perry's nominees — Houston energy executive Jeff Hildebrand, McAllen municipal judge Ernest Aliseda and El Paso businessman Paul Foster, who is currently a regent — were "on a mission" to fire University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers. Whitmire has said he did not want to be "a small part" of that effort.
In a lengthy confirmation hearing on Monday, the nominees assured senators that they were on no such mission and had no intention to fire Powers or ask him to leave. They also committed not micromanage universities or to fire any presidents without a recommendation from the system's chancellor.
Before the full Senate voted on each nominee, a number of members made speeches about the controversy that has plagued discussions about the UT System. It became clear that, through the hearing process, senators came to feel more comfortable confirming these nominees rather than rejecting them, which would have allowed the governor to install anyone he wanted on the board for nearly two years without confirmation.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, cited "unmistakable commitments" by the nominees to seek to move beyond the controversy. He said his vote in favor of ther confirmation was motivated by, among other things, "hope and belief that these three men made promises, have the ability, and can be voices of reason, moderation and reconciliation."
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, noted that the nominees were not being scrutinized because of their own actions but because of those of what she referred to as a minority of "rogue regents." She expressed confidence that the Senate had the votes to block the appointments if the body desired but preferred to give Hildebrand, Foster and Aliseda the benefit of the doubt because of their stated dedication to "excellence" in higher education.
In their remarks, both Watson and Zaffirini signaled dissatisfaction with statements made by current UT System Regents Chairman Gene Powell.
Watson knocked the chairman's use of military-style language — specifically the phrase "fog of war" — to describe the system's situation. Zaffirini questioned Powell's previous assertions that portions of the Texas Education Code laying out best practices for higher education governing boards do not apply to the UT System.
Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said the Senate had made "some mistakes" in the confirmation of some appointees to the UT System board in the past. That is likely a reference to some if not all of the regents appointed in 2011: Wallace Hall, Alex Cranberg, and Brenda Pejovich, who have been more aggressive than past regents.
Amid the controversy stirred by those regents' actions and the subsequent backlash from UT-Austin alumni, Seliger authored Senate Bill 15 this session, which puts restrictions and requirements on regents into statute. All three appointees said they would abide by the spirit of the bill, which is currently awaiting the governor's signature — even if he opts to veto it.
"I think these gentlemen deserve the right, since we know of no reason not to, to be treated as people of integrity," Seliger said. "That they are going to do what they say and the commitment is a real one to the long term — and near term, I guess — benefit of the university."
Following the confirmation of the nominees, Powers issued a statement, saying "I look forward to working with Regents Foster, Aliseda and Hildebrand as we move forward and make UT-Austin the best public research university in the nation."