Willeford: Perry "Going After" UT-Austin, Powers

Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Star of Texas Awards ceremony on Sept. 12, 2013.
Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Star of Texas Awards ceremony on Sept. 12, 2013.

Did a former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry say in 2011 that the governor and his appointed regents were targeting the University of Texas at Austin and its president, Bill Powers, "because we can"?

That's what Pamela Willeford, a former U.S. ambassador and former chairwoman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, alleged in a mass email to her friends, a message that The Texas Tribune obtained Wednesday.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers accused Perry-appointed regents at the University of Texas System of being on a "witch hunt" targeting Powers. A legislative committee is currently mulling articles of impeachment against one regent, Wallace Hall.

Willeford told the Tribune in an email that she requested a meeting with Perry's staff in 2011 when the agenda of the governor's office "was becoming obvious." She declined to say which chief of staff — of whom there have been several in recent years — responded to her question as to why they were "going after" Powers by saying, "Because we can."

"Maybe they can, but they certainly shouldn't," Willeford wrote in her email.

Ray Sullivan, who served as Perry's chief of staff, told the Tribune that he did recall "a lively conversation with Pam Willeford, who was very concerned with protecting the status quo and the administration of the University of Texas at Austin." But he disputed her recollection of the comment.

"My goal was to explain the governor's commitment to improving higher ed, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of educational instruction in Texas," Sullivan said. "I realize that she was fixated and remains fixated on protecting the incumbent. My recollection and goal of the conversation was to try and calm those concerns."

When asked if Perry was focused on ousting Powers, Sullivan said: "The governor is determined to improve higher ed across the board in Texas. He certainly wants to see reform-minded individuals in positions of authority, particularly the regents, which he appoints. He is much more interested in improving outcomes than removing or changing the personalities involved."

Willeford's mass email was largely prompted by a recent Dallas Morning News op-ed written by Jeff Sandefer, an informal higher education adviser to Perry who authored a set of controversial higher ed reforms that sparked a backlash in 2011. Sandefer criticized UT-Austin for slipping from 46th to 52nd in U.S. News & World Report's university rankings.

UT-Austin officials have argued that the drop is due to a recalibration of the rankings, which lowered the value of incoming students' class rank and increased the importance of standardized test scores.

"Mr. Sandefer is not a disinterested party in the current debate," Willeford told her friends as she encouraged them to support efforts to fight the removal of Powers. "Rather, he has sown many of the seeds of discord that have led to the current battles."

Willeford, an alumna of UT-Austin, is a member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which formed in 2011 in opposition to the reforms proposed by Sandefer and Perry.

In an email to the Tribune responding to Willeford's comments, Sandefer once again cited the drop in the rankings, as well as an increase in costs per student at UT-Austin. "These facts may be inconvenient," he wrote, "but something is clearly amiss if Ms. Willeford and those in UT-Austin's inner circle believes this is the best we can do."

Sandefer also raised the specter of political influence in the admissions process at UT-Austin, as Hall's lawyers have recently done. "All misplaced school pride aside, the real question is whether the UT chancellor, regents and attorney general have enough integrity to look deeply into UT-Austin's admission policies," Sandefer said. "If there's any kind of cover-up underway, Texans deserve the truth."

Powers has previously told reporters, "We don't have favoritism in our admissions process."

Willeford, who served as George W. Bush's ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein from 2003 to 2006, said she has never sent a mass email of this nature before. She said Powers "has been an excellent leader and deserves our support" and accused Sandefer of being a part of a coordinated attack.

"It is offensive to me — and it should be to all Texans — that one wealthy campaign donor who can afford to buy access and then push his ideas out via other people and special interest groups ... can cause such disruption and such harm to our institutions, and in particular UT-Austin," she said.

Sandefer said that Willeford's attacks "suggest hard-hitting questions are striking close to home."

In her email blast, Willeford also noted that Perry had recently congratulated the Texas Tech University System for raising $1 billion under Chancellor Kent Hance's seven-year tenure but had failed to acknowledge UT-Austin's record-breaking fundraising year.

"The governor's statement was recognition of the great work and leadership Chancellor Hance has provided the Texas Tech System on the occasion of his announced intention to retire, and not a reflection of the system's fundraising. Any insinuation by Ms. Willeford to the contrary is simply incorrect," Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in a statement.

Nashed added that the governor's focus "has always remained on accessibility, accountability and affordability in higher education."

Here's the full text of Willeford's email:

Friends:

I have never sent out a mass email, but I am using this format because I feel strongly it is time for me to speak up. The aggressive attacks and the campaign of disinformation against my alma mater and its leaders have saddened and disgusted me – and they have reached a new low. I am appalled that Jeff Sandefer would trash The University of Texas at Austin on the pages of the Dallas Morning News, or refer to Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr.'s tactics of intimidation as "courageous." This latest coordinated assault – and it is coordinated – by Mr. Sandefer, Regent Hall and some of the UT System Board of Regents warrants a response.

An excellent institution that has been built up over decades should not be torn down by a few individuals. Yet, unfortunately, that is exactly what has been happening.

I am a long-time advocate for quality higher education in the state of Texas – not just at UT-Austin, where I was privileged to attend, but at ALL of our state’s institutions. As many of you know, I was on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for eight years from 1995-2003, and I served as its chair for five of those years. It was during that time that Jeff Sandefer, a very large contributor to then-Lieutenant Governor Perry and later to Governor Perry, started trying to sell his particular views on higher education policy.

Sandefer’s “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for re-inventing higher education were later introduced at a 2008 conference convened by Governor Perry. In the "Solutions" – which are neither breakthrough nor solutions – you will see a lot of business school words like measurement, efficiency, accountability and financial incentives. Sandefer views students as customers and schools as businesses. Academic excellence is barely mentioned. In my view, any legitimate agenda for higher education should have at its core academic excellence. Certain business principles certainly should and do apply to higher education but many do not because of the complicated and unique realities of an academic institution.

Boards of Regents should set broad policy, and the chancellors, presidents, administrators and professors – those who are in the trenches every day and know what works – should then be allowed to teach, research and administer their institutions without micromanagement by those regents. 

Unfortunately, some of the current regents came into their positions with no understanding or appreciation of the mission of a Tier One research institution and apparently with no understanding of the appropriate policy roles of a board. And some of them obviously came to their positions with an agenda to follow many of Sandefer's proposals, to micromanage the flagship and to discredit and without a doubt change the leadership of UT-Austin. 

Mr. Sandefer is not a disinterested party in the current debate. Rather, he has sown many of the seeds of discord that have led to the current battles. He left The University of Texas when he could not take over the business school, and he also took his program unsuccessfully to the University of Oklahoma and St. Edward's University. He finally found a home for his higher education ideology by using his wealth to start his own MBA program. That is a good thing because, as he should understand better than most, in a capitalistic society he can run the school that he funds as he sees fit. And he can impose and promulgate whatever ideas and ideology he desires – and also charge students whatever the private market can bear, nearly $50,000 per year. But the institutions that the taxpayers of Texas have funded, nurtured and built are public treasures that should not be his "petri dish" for that same ideology.

Sandefer's tenure at UT-Austin was tumultuous at best and seems to have left him with a vendetta against this world-class institution. He is the wrong person to be telling the Governor who should serve as regents of one of the State's most important assets, the University of Texas System. And Sandefer's true colors showed when he went public with his smear campaign on the Dallas Morning News’ editorial pages and as he continues to applaud the actions of Regent Hall, who is also determined on tearing down, rather than building up, our flagship.

In place of the laser-like and malicious focus on UT-Austin, the UT System Board of Regents should concentrate on the aspiring Tier One institutions as well as the smaller regional universities in the System to truly add value and change the future of Texas. These universities are where many students who are the first in their families to go to college are enrolling.  These students are the face and future of our great state---- yet too often they and their institutions seem to be an afterthought.

Instead of lifting up those campuses and spending extra time and attention on them, some of the regents, in particular Regents Powell, Hall, Cranberg and Pejovich, have focused their sights on UT-Austin and its leadership and have engaged in an all-out assault on the flagship.  

Collectively, the Board of Regents has done notable things in the last year, including approving the new university in South Texas and the new medical school in Austin. But those accomplishments have been overshadowed by the controversies that its members have intentionally sparked and its leaders have left festering, damaging the morale, the brand and the hard-won reputation of UT-Austin. 

The president of UT-Austin has stood firm against damaging efforts pushed down on the campuses. This does not mean he supports the status quo – quite the opposite. The list of reforms achieved under Bill Powers' tenure merits praise from the Board of Regents and the Governor, not derision. As testament to his leadership, next week Bill Powers will take the helm of the prestigious American Associations of Universities, a consortium of our nation’s top Tier One research institutions. He was recently named alumnus of the year from his alma mater, Cal Berkeley. Bill Powers is respected as a leader AND a reformer across the nation, and he should be congratulated and supported as he assumes this important role.

But rather, as emails written by Governor Perry have shown, Powers is accused of a campaign of “misinformation,” and a systematic effort has been underway to criticize, undermine and threaten him. Last weekend Governor Perry praised Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance on the entire System raising $1B in his tenure – a notable accomplishment, to be sure – but the Governor was silent on UT-Austin’s announcement of breaking the single year fundraising record when it announced a $396 million haul in August, bringing the campus’s Campaign for Texas total to a record-breaking $2.2 billion.

I applaud the efforts of many of our legislators this session. In the House and in the Senate, we had leaders who stood up to the Governor’s political appointees and said "enough is enough." They recognize that these institutions belong to the people of Texas, and they should be treated with respect and not attacked, undermined and maligned. Now some of those same legislators are being targeted and attacked as well.

It is offensive to me – and it should be to all Texans – that one wealthy campaign donor who can afford to buy access and then push his ideas out via other people and special interest groups such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Michael Quinn Sullivan, AgendaWise and Empower Texas, which don’t clearly disclose their donors and funders, can cause such disruption and such harm to our institutions, and in particular UT-Austin. It is no coincidence that while Jeff Sandefer publically applauds the work of Regent Hall, these other entities then promote and publish Wallace Hall’s "findings." This is a systematic and coordinated effort. It is truly disingenuous when Mr. Sandefer tries to paint anyone who stands up in defense of our institutions as participating in a "public relations campaign and political sideshow," as he is the primary funder and organizer of the coordinated effort to defend the inexcusable actions of some of the regents and to tear down UT-Austin.

I write this as a concerned alumna of UT-Austin and have not been asked to do this by any institution, any leader or any group. I am sending this because I have had enough. And it is time for those of us who do not agree with the egregious behavior of a few well-positioned and well-funded individuals to say that we have had enough! We all should stand up against regents and an un-elected individual with an agenda that is self-serving, arrogant and "gotcha" in its tactics. Our institutions are public treasures – they are not laboratories where high dollar donors and think tanks can experiment.

We believe there is an accelerated timeline to end the presidency of Bill Powers at UT-Austin. He has been an excellent leader and deserves our support. Please do anything and everything you can to send the message that the actions and publicity against UT-Austin and the plan to remove our president are not acceptable: contact the regents, contact the chancellor, contact your legislators, write op-eds, send letters to the editors of your papers, join the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. We are all volunteers and concerned Texans/alumni/students/faculty, and our voices need to be heard.

Two years ago, when I asked why Governor Perry and the regents were going after UT-Austin and its president, I was told by his Chief of Staff "because we can." Maybe they can, but they certainly shouldn't!

Sincerely,

Pamela Pitzer Willeford

United Stated Ambassador (ret)

Former Chair, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

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