| Last night the Internet lit up with burnt orange outrage as University of Texas students and alumni reacted to the news that Governor Perry may be trying to force out University of Texas President Bill Powers, over Powers' opposition to the UT Board of Regents' tuition freeze.
Paul Burka posted late Wednesday evening that a source told him that the Perry-appointed Board of Regents chair had asked for Powers to be fired:
I do not have an official confirmation, but I was told that the situation is fluid and may be happening as I write. My understanding, based on what a source with knowledge of the proceedings has conveyed, is that Regents' chairman Gene Powell asked Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to recommend that Powers be fired. Cigarroa refused. The next step will likely be a special meeting of the board to take action. I have no indication that notice of the meeting has been posted.
I will continue to make attempts to confirm this report. If it is accurate, the impact on the university's reputation could be devastating. UT will have to undertake the search for a new president at a time when top-grade candidates will be unlikely to be attracted to a position that is subject to political pressure.
The conflict started when the UT System Board of Regents met last week and denied the request of the University of Texas's flagship campus to raise tuition. By not raising tuition, the Board of Regents left the University with a several-million-dollar budgetary shortfall, which for two years will be made up with funds from the Available University Fund, the investment income from West Texas oil lands that are managed by the UT System. However, the Board of Regents made clear that this was only a two-year fix for the two-year tuition freeze, so the President of UT (whoever that is in two years) will have to go back and beg for more funding to help the University maintain its academic standards. Powers criticized the decision, noting that what the University needs is "recurring revenue," or money it can count on year after year to maintain and establish high-quality academic programs.
Every member Board of Regents has been appointed by Governor Rick Perry, and many of them are hefty, hefty campaign donors to his various electoral efforts. Perry has largely turned leadership of our university systems into a system of political patronage awarded to the highest bidders, so it's no surprise now to see the Regents potentially firing back at a widely respected administrator who has openly clashed with their anti-funding ideology. It is also worth noting that the Board of Regents approved an increase in tuition at other UT campuses. All of this tuition trouble -- both increases that impact student affordability and freezes that hurt faculty and academic quality -- stems from the basic fact that the state of Texas and the Republican legislature simply does not fund our public higher education institutions to the degree necessary to maintain their high standards. Without adequate public funding for the so-called public university, there aren't a lot of other options for the University of Texas to fund its faculty, staff, and programs to the degree necessary to maintain its status as a world-class, Tier 1 research university. And I'm sure the current students and alumni of UT don't want to see the value of their degree become worthless due to Republicans' efforts to destroy the quality of education at UT through refusing to fund it.
The news from Burka set off a social media firestorm, as the hashtag #SaveBillPowers quickly became a trending topic and the Facebook group I Stand With Bill Powers picked up thousands of members. It is definitely "going viral," as the kids say, and while there is some opposition to tuition increases in general most students appear to rally around their university president and defend him from what may well be a politically motivated firing.
If Powers can credibly stand up to the Perry-appointed Board of Regents, and stand up to the Texas Legislature's attempts to slash funding from higher education, it makes the entire Republican budgetary house of cards look all the more shakier. Powers is widely respected in the state and by many leaders in the Legislature, as well as on a national level. Should he be ousted by his unwillingness to keep quiet about the harm caused to UT by draconian anti-spending austerity measures, it will send a strong and sad message about the state of affairs on the 40 Acres.
We'll keep you posted as this develops.