In reponse to University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa's recent request that he resign, University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers did not refuse outright to step down. Instead, he proposed delaying his departure until after the coming legislative session.
Last week, Cigarroa asked Powers to announce at the end of August that he planned to resign with the intention to leave at the end of October. According to sources, the alternative to agreeing to resign was to be fired at a July 10 meeting of the UT System Board of Regents.
On July 4, Powers sent Cigarroa a letter declining that request and proposing a delay of at least seven months.
"I understand that this response is different from your request I resign this year," Powers wrote, in a letter obtained by the Tribune. "I do think my proposal to resign at the end of the legislative session is a constructive one and in the best long-term interest of UT-Austin. Throughout my tenure, I have always striven to act in the best interests of the University. I believe a graceful rather than abrupt departure after nine years in office is in keeping with that."
In his letter to the chancellor, Powers touted the anticipated completion of the university's $3 billion capital campaign as an accomplishment. But he said there was still work he hoped to do, including implementing more efficient business models and practices, establishing the foundation of a new medical school, and being on hand as lawmakers deliberate important issues and craft a two-year budget in 2015.
An abrupt resignation, he wrote, "would be enormously disruptive to many stakeholders and would cast the University and our state in a highly unfavorable light."
This sentiment was reiterated by Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, an elite, high-profile organization of top research universities, of which Powers is currently chairman.
In a statement, Rawlings noted Powers' long-standing tension with current UT System regents, all of whom were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.
"I thought the State of Texas had in the past two years reached the outer limit of political intrusion into academic institutions," Rawlings said, "but apparently not: now a board appointed by a lame duck Governor, and, astonishingly, a lame duck Chancellor, are threatening to oust a highly accomplished and popular president of Texas’ flagship university, and a national leader in higher education."
In February, Cigarroa announced his intention to resign and lead pediatric transplant surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio. He plans to depart once his replacement has been named. The timeline for the search process and Cigarroa's subsequent departure is currently unclear.
The timing of Cigarroa's request for Powers to step down is also unclear. UT System officials have not responded to requests for comment. The chancellor recently announced that the System would launch a full investigation of the university's admissions practices following allegations of undue political influence in the process.
That investigation continues, and Cigarroa has not indicated publicly if the admissions matter is tied to his latest request of Powers.
In December, Cigarroa recommended that Powers continue as president. On June 20, when asked by the Tribune if his recommendation regarding Powers' employment had changed, he said, "Basically, every day is a new day. I evaluate every president the way I always have. My position, as of today, remains the same."
Powers' supporters seem baffled by the development.
"There are some critical unanswered questions," said Jenifer Sarver, the spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group made up largely of UT-Austin boosters that formed in 2011 in opposition to controversial activities on the boards of university systems in Texas, particularly at the UT System.
On Sunday, in an email to the Texas Exes, the university's alumni organization, the group's new president, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, wrote, "A forced resignation or firing would be a travesty for UT. It would cause further tension with legislators regarding UT System, would compound unrest among faculty, students, and alumni, and invoke serious harm to the institution's reputation in the national spotlight."
Rawlings also underscored the potential damage to the university's national standing in his statement. "This lengthy battle has been extremely corrosive, and clearly damages one of the nation’s great research universities," he said. "Believe me, faculty members and researchers and graduate students across the country know what is transpiring in Texas: the complete politicization of higher education. This latest fiasco makes a bad situation much worse."