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Powers' Supporters Wary as Board Mulls His Fate

Bill Powers' future as president of the University of Texas at Austin may finally be put to a vote by the UT System's Board of Regents on Thursday. His supporters are warily hoping for a vote of confidence.

Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, at a TribLive event on April 28, 2011.

After years of speculation, Bill Powers' future as president of the University of Texas at Austin may finally be put to a vote by the UT System's Board of Regents on Thursday. 

The agenda for the board's meeting includes a closed-door discussion followed by appropriate action "related to recommendation by Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Chancellor concerning employment of William C. Powers, Jr., as President of The University of Texas at Austin."

Knowing that the board is split on the issue of whether Powers should stick around, his supporters are wary of the outcome.

The Texas Exes, the UT-Austin alumni organization, which has been supportive of the current administration, sent out an email to members encouraging them to attend the meeting in Austin, if possible, indicating they hope to have a "strong and positive presence" throughout the day-long proceedings.

"Now is the time to show your support of his administration and continue to focus on the positive, reinforcing UT's mission of excellence in teaching and research," they wrote. "Our alumni stand behind Bill Powers' vision to make UT-Austin the top public teaching and research university in the country."

The executive committee of the university's faculty council issued a statement on Wednesday backing Powers, who they said has "enhanced the quality and stature of the institution's undergraduate education, its graduate programs, its research mission, its commitment to medical education and care, and its service to the community and to higher education generally."

Powers also received expressions of support from the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, an organization that formed in 2011 to push back against controversial higher ed reforms that had been promoted by Gov. Rick Perry.

Multiple sources told the Tribune that termination of the president would be an unlikely outcome of Thursday's discussion.

The board's chairman, Paul Foster, has signaled a desire to move beyond the controversy that has plagued the board for nearly three years. And the board's newest members, prior to their confirmation by the state Senate, pledged not to seek to oust Powers, who recently took over as chair of the Association of American Universities.

Futhermore, a legislative committee that is investigating — and may recommend the impeachment of — one of the regents has repeatedly asked the board not to take negative employment action against anybody involved in its investigation, including Powers.

State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, the committee's co-chair, did not express particular concern about Thursday's meeting. "You can worry yourself to death about things that might happen, or you can wait and see what happens," he said.

Flynn said the UT System has been "most cooperative" with the investigation thus far, and he anticipates that it will "continue to honor" the committee's wishes. Given the historic nature of the current circumstances — no regent has ever undergone such impeachment proceedings in the state's history — he said the agenda item was probably included out of "an overabundance of caution and transparency."

"They have some discussion they want to have, and they want to be sure that's on the record," Flynn said. "I understand that."

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who has been a vocal advocate for Powers, warned that "all hell would break loose" if Powers were terminated or a plan for a constructed exit was presented.

"I cannot imagine they would take any negative action at this point in time," she said of the regents. "I see no reason for an agenda item at this point in time. If anything, I hope they have a vote of confidence in him."

She also offered another alternative. "If they want to avoid a vote," she said, "they should simply not have an action. But under no circumstances should they consider his termination."

Powers is one of two prominent UT-Austin employees whose future employment could be up in the air. The university's embattled football coach, Mack Brown, who is also the highest-paid state employee in Texas, has reportedly been considering stepping down.

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