After Paul Foster was named chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents in August, Charles Miller, a Houston businessman who had served in that position for more than three years, sent him a note.
“I told him it’s an easy job,” Miller said. “You just have to solve difficult problems 24/7 and spend the rest of your time putting out the resulting fires.”
Foster is no slouch. His predilection for hard work began with a paper route at age 11 and developed during summers as a teenager laboring in the New Mexico oil fields where his father worked. Now the executive chairman of Western Refining, a company he formed in 1997, Foster is a self-made billionaire.
Still, as Foster, who hails from El Paso, recently said of his new post with the UT System, “In terms of the scope and magnitude of the job, it’s probably the biggest job I’ve ever had.”
And expectations could not be much higher.
For the 30 months that Foster’s predecessor, Gene Powell, served as chairman, the UT System board’s internal relationships and those with the administration of its flagship university and state lawmakers seemed to have deteriorated steadily, with charges and countercharges over issues including rising tuition costs and governance style. Many hope that a change at the top can turn things around.
Lawmakers have accused certain people on the nine-member Board of Regents of engaging in a “witch hunt” against Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin. During the recent legislative session, restrictions on the board’s spending authority were added to the state budget. And a legislative committee is considering whether to proceed with impeachment proceedings against one regent, Wallace Hall of Dallas.
“Something needs to change,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “I’m not indicating who is right or wrong, but I don’t know if it’s ever good for there to be this much controversy between the governing body of a system and the Legislature. Sometimes a simple change in leadership in any organization can make a change in the tone and tenor of the way things go.”
Foster recently completed his first six-year term on the board and was confirmed for a second term this year after a legislative hearing lasting hours in which one lawmaker urged him and his fellow board members to “move beyond the controversy.”
Foster said he remained committed to that. “As chairman, I’m going to try to provide leadership in the best way I know how,” he said. “In general, that has involved trying to build consensus in various areas and trying to identify the best path forward. So I’m determined that I’m not going to get dragged into the fray here.”
This represents something of a contrast with Powell’s style, which Powell, a San Antonio businessman, readily acknowledged.
“In every organization I’ve ever run, from the time I was about 17 years old, I’ve always had this kind of discord,” he said. “The reason is because I’m always pushing. When you are pushing people beyond their comfort limits, you get some discord.”
Despite the tensions, the regents ticked off a number of accomplishments under the leadership of Powell, who will remain as the board’s vice chairman.
For example, the system began the process of merging two universities to create a major institution in South Texas and the board dedicated money to a new medical school planned for Austin.
Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed each regent, has compared the board’s struggle to the Battle of the Bulge. In March, via email, he encouraged a small group of regents, including Hall and Foster, to “stay focused and team-oriented.”
In a statement this week, a spokeswoman said the governor hoped that Foster would continue the work of Powell’s tenure, which the former chairman jokingly described as “the best of times and the worst of times.” Powell said he never felt an obligation to rein in the other regents to operate as a more unified board.
Foster said he was not sure he had much legal recourse for demanding that regents behave a certain way. “I think it’s more in terms of leadership style: trying to build consensus and trying to get people all rolling in the same direction,” he said.
But James Huffines, who served two separate terms as board chairman for a total of nearly five years, said there was more to it than that. “Any chairman of any public board has certain levels of authority and power that can keep the board focused in a single direction,” he said, adding that he believed Foster “will do an excellent job.”
As for Miller, he believes the onus for calming the waters falls on the Legislature, which he criticized for focusing too much on the regents’ activities while failing to approve a popular plan to issue bonds for campus construction projects.
Throughout the session, legislators expressed support for Powers and concern that regents might try to remove him from UT-Austin. During his confirmation hearing, Foster admitted that Powers “has been a challenge to the board at times.”
He said he still had that concern but intended to leave the evaluation of presidents up to the system’s chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa, who he said “has the support and trust of the board.”
“It’s not my role to second-guess. It’s not my role to criticize,” Foster said. “I am concerned about it because it’s the issue that is causing all the controversy, but I’m not going to weigh in on it.”
He did weigh in on the investigation of Hall, who is being scrutinized by the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, in part for demanding access to thousands of documents at UT-Austin. In a recent letter to the committee, Hall’s lawyers said that his efforts have been “bringing to light acts, omissions, misrepresentations and favoritism within the UT System that some would strongly prefer remain undisclosed.”
“I think it’s almost ironic that you have a committee on transparency and you have a regent who is being chastised pretty badly for what appears to be an effort to create transparency,” Foster said. “I don’t think the objectives on either side are very different from one another. I think there’s a way to get everybody focused on what’s important.”
Through his philanthropic efforts, Foster has demonstrated the extent to which he values higher education. In addition to giving millions to his alma mater, Baylor University, and to the University of Texas at El Paso, he made the largest single gift to the Texas Tech University System that it has ever received: $50 million for a medical school in El Paso that now bears his name.
“I just think the most significant driver for economic development and the prosperity of a region or a state or the country is the level of education, particularly higher ed,” Foster said. “Statistically, it bears out over and over and over.”
More than 200,000 students attend the 15 institutions in the UT System.
“It touches a lot of lives and has a huge impact on the future of the state,” Foster said. “This is a position from which you can have a great impact and, hopefully, with good results, a positive one.”