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Emails to UT System Show Outrage Over Ouster Ultimatum

The Tribune reviewed more than 400 pages of emails sent to UT System officials following news that the flagship's president was being given an ultimatum on his job. Most supported Bill Powers, though there were exceptions.

UT President Bill Powers speaks during a UT Board of Regents meeting on July 10, 2014.

In early July, in the wake of news that he had asked University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers to agree to resign or face termination, outgoing University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa received hundreds of emails in support of the president. 

Many referred to a possible Powers ouster as "a travesty," which is how it was described in talking points that the Texas Exes, the university's alumni association, blasted to its members via email. And several threatened to withhold contributions to the university if the ultimate outcome of the dispute was not to their liking.

The Texas Tribune reviewed more than 400 pages of emails provided by the UT System, letters sent to Cigarroa, Foster and other officials in the week leading up to the July 10 UT System Board of Regents meeting. Ahead of that meeting, at which Powers' future was to be discussed, the president submitted a plan to resign in June of 2015. Cigarroa, who plans to step down himself at the end of this year, accepted the plan. (Cigarroa will be replaced by Admiral William H. McRaven. Powers' replacement has yet to be determined.)

At the board meeting that followed news of the deal, UT System Board Chairman Paul Foster acknowledged that Cigarroa had been sent "derogatory and sometimes threatening notes" over his ultimatum to Powers.  In a conversation with reporters, Cigarroa confirmed that he had received "voluminous non-constructive emails," though he said he did not consider them threatening.

The Tribune review shows the overwhelming majority of letters hail from supporters of Powers. 

One self-identified Texas Ex life member wrote, "Please move beyond politics at UT and keep President Powers, a man with more integrity than any of you will ever have." A 1955 graduate wrote, "For God's sake please come to your senses and stop acting like a bunch of political teenagers." A 1977 graduate advised the board to "take your toys and get out of our sandbox."

Prior to accepting Powers' timeline, Cigarroa put out a statement saying that his ultimatum was prompted by "a breakdown of communication, collegiality, trust and a willingness to work together." 

"He's not collegial enough. Well, boo bleeping hoo," wrote a 1967 graduate of the university. "I have made my share of bad hires, but I never fired anyone unless I could clearly articulate why I was firing them. You shouldn't, either."

Some heavy hitters weighed in more diplomatically. 

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff wrote of the possible ouster: "It will be a sad day in the history of Texas' higher education if these misguided efforts succeed."

Charles Matthews, who recently handed over the presidency of the Texas Exes to former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, warned that "the unrest is very real and if anyone is advising that this will soon blow over if Powers is terminated is badly and sadly mistaken based upon the depth of the feelings toward the chancellor and the board as has been expressed to me."

The directors of the Blanton Museum of Art and the Harry Ransom Center wrote a joint letter arguing that their respective centers were in the midst of negotiating significant acquisitions. "The dedication to excellence that President Powers has championed, and his advocacy of the arts and humanities on campus, have been key to developing these projects for the university," they wrote.

But not everyone was eager to see the president stick around.

A 2012 graduate wrote encouraging the board to part ways with Powers because "his liberal policies fell drastically short of what this great university and its students deserve." Another correspondent said the president "needs to go" because of his "insistence on using race in the admissions policy." One 1971 graduate simply wrote, "I support firing Powers."

A 1973 grad offered a compromise in an email with the subject line "Fire Powers and Hall."

Wallace Hall is a regent whose personal investigations of the flagship university's administration have landed him in hot water with state legislators. Earlier this year, a House committee approved a motion stating that grounds to impeach Hall exist. He has denied any wrongdoing and said it's his duty to expose malfeasance at the university.

The alum suggested a timeline for getting rid of both the president and Hall "as soon as possible."

This was not the first time Powers sparked such a letter-writing campaign. A batch of similar messages flooded in two years ago when the president's job was also believed to be under threat.

With the approval of a gradual departure for Powers, the announcement of a new chancellor and the appointment of up to three new regents ahead in 2015, many observers of the conflict have expressed hope that the years-long tension will soon subside.

"There's a lot of change coming, but I think it's generally positive," Foster said in July.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster is a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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