William "Bill" Powers Jr. is the 28th president of the University of Texas at Austin, the flagship campus of the University of Texas System and the fifth-largest university in the nation. He was appointed to the position by the UT Board of Regents in 2005, following a five-year tenure as dean of the University of UT’s School of Law.
Born in Los Angeles, Powers earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, and then joined the U.S. Navy. After his discharge, Powers enrolled at Harvard Law School and graduated magna cum laude in 1973. After clerking in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, he took a teaching position at the University of Washington School of Law. In 1977, he joined the faculty at the University of Texas School of Law. He is married to Kim Heilbrun, a commercial real estate lawyer, and has five children.
Powers has written several books, dozens of articles and given hundreds of speeches. He has served as legal counsel to the congresses of the U.S. and Brazil, as well as the Texas Legislature, and he has chaired or served on dozens of boards, panels, conferences and committees. In 2001-02, he served on the board of failed energy giant Enron, both as a member of the litigation team and as chairman of a committee that investigated what went wrong. Some faulted him for taking the job, citing a conflict of interest — Enron had donated $3.5 million to UT-Austin, $276,000 of that to the law school — but Powers’ frank assessment of Enron’s failures in the committee’s report silenced critics.
In 2000, Powers was appointed dean of the UT law school. He made student diversity a top priority — on his watch, the number of black students quadrupled, and Hispanics doubled, putting UT at the top of tier-one law schools in minority enrollment. He brought in $55 million in private donations, worked with the Legislature to deregulate law school tuition and aggressively recruited top professors nationwide.
In 2006, Powers, the sole finalist, was appointed UT-Austin president by the Board of Regents. He oversees operations at the massive campus, including its thousands of employees. He has the power to hire and fire deans and athletic directors.
UT-Austin is one of three universities in Texas regarded as “tier one” institutions (the others are Texas A&M in College Station and Rice University in Houston). It has one of the largest endowments in the country, and the largest budget for its athletic department.
Exactly what makes a university tier-one is variable, but generally it means any university that spends a sizable amount on research, graduates at least 200 Ph.Ds per year and has a strong academic stature. Such institutions, loaded with expensive faculty and facilities, come with a growing price tag for the state and college students, more and more an issue nationwide as student college loan debts soar. But UT-Austin, in particular, has a state constitutional mandate:
“The legislature shall as soon as practicable establish, organize and provide for the maintenance, support and direction of a University of the first class, to be located by a vote of the people of this State, and styled, "The University of Texas..." (Article 7, Section 10 of the Texas Constitution)
But maintaining such a mandate is an expensive proposition. In the 2011 legislative session, state leaders commanded state agencies — including state universities — to come up with five, and then later an additional ten percent in cuts to their budgets, which put pressure on administrators to raise tuitions and other fees.
In his January, 2011 State of the State address, Gov. Rick Perry called for a $10,000, four year degree program — including books — at state universities. Degree plans that closely match those criteria are actually available at UT-San Antonio and UT-Permian Basin, albeit under narrow circumstances, making Perry’s proposition at least plausible, if not for a tier-one university. But the proposal reflects an increasingly popular notion among many about the proper role of higher education. On one hand, there is the traditional idea of the hallowed academic institution. Against that, there’s the view that students should be trained for jobs, quickly and efficiently, using management and incentivizing techniques more familiar to businesses.
Reflecting this philosophy, in late 2011, newly appointed chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell hired Rick O’Donnell to the new position of special adviser to the board. O’Donnell, a former official in Colorado’s higher education department, had written a policy paper for the conservative think-tank Texas Public Policy Foundation that questioned the need and usefulness of much of the research that goes on in universities. Supporting this point of view was fellow TPPF board member Jeff Sandefer, himself the author of a much-discussed document that outlines "seven breakthrough solutions” for reforming the higher-education model.
Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M, implemented measures similar to those proposed by Sandefer and O’Donnell, to widespread distrust and criticism. Less than 2 months into his job, O’Donnell was fired, but the fundamental division remains over the higher-education approach.
In May 2012, rumors swirled that Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell, in concurrence with other regents, had directed chairman UT system chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to fire Powers. The reason: Back in 2003, state lawmakers gave up the power to regulate tuitions at state universities, turning the decision over to their boards of regents. Tuitions across the state rose rapidly — 50 percent at UT-Austin by 2009 — and that year, with students and parents increasingly alarmed, lawmakers crafted legislation imposing a moratorium on hikes. As momentum for the freeze built up in the Legislature, Powers moved to cap UT executive salaries, which had risen nearly as sharply as tuition rates. The legislation finally failed, but the message was sent: universities, control your costs.
As the 2012 spring semester ended at UT, Powers recommended tuition hikes of 2.6 percent for in-state and 3.6 percent for out-of-state students. Regents rejected the in-state increases, a move Powers criticized publicly, starting the rumor of his imminent firing.
A social media campaign to preserve Powers' job ensued, and although both Cigarroa and Powell later denied the UT president’s job was in danger, the issue of making higher education both first-rate and affordable — which no one, including Powers, denies is a defining challenge — remains.