Powers Struggle: Rick's Regents and Resignation Rumors

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Rick Perry's at it again, trying to mess with the University of Texas, and again rumored to be using his cronies on the Board of Regents to try and drive out UT President Bill Powers.

What remains to be seen is if this latest effort by Perry to harm the competitiveness of our state's flagship public university will go beyond well-sourced rumors. However, I have no doubt that Powers is ready to fight not merely for his job, but the integrity of the University of Texas.

It's old news that Perry tends to reward his biggest donors with plummy positions on the Board of Regents — as of November 2012 the UT Regents had donated $796,892 according to analysis by the Daily Texan. Last May, Texas Exes rose up in support of Bill Powers when Paul Burka published rumors that the UT President's job might be in jeopardy. Whether it was a strategic effort to rally popular support for Powers and avert his firing or simply bad intel, the next day UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa stated unequivocally that he was never directed to fire Powers.

There's obviously tension between Powers and the Regents — Powers' recommendations of what the University needs to thrive and maintain its world-class status seem to fall on deaf ears for some of the Regents, some of whom seem particularly hostile to Powers' efforts to marshall enough revenue to run the university.

Earlier this session, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst led a bi-partisan effort in the State Senate to praise Bill Powers on the floor, stating “I believe in reform and I know that Bill Powers believes in reform. That's why I'm particularly troubled when I see UT regents go around this man. I see them trying to micromanage the system.”

Cue the latest round — read more below the jump.Over the weekend, the Houston Chronicle published a lengthly piece on the latest developments in the Perry vs. Powers struggle that ostensibly centers around a vote to conduct an external review of a loan from the private UT Law School Foundation to former dean Larry Sager, but has in effect become a proxy fight for the effort to oust Powers:

Last week, sources confirmed that Perry has communicated through emissaries that Powers should resign to avoid an embarrassing regents vote to fire him.

Powers declined to comment for this story.

Perry's office repeatedly has declined to end speculation that Powers' job was at risk.

The silence, as the saying goes, speaks volumes. The Houston Chronicle piece continues:

[Regents Chairman Gene Powell] also denied that Perry had asked the board of regents to fire Powers. Referring to UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, Powell wrote: “Personnel decisions are made by the Chancellor and the Board. We do not discuss personnel matters until the Chancellor makes a recommendation to the Board.”

Today, Senator Judith Zaffirini, a long-time advocate for higher education, made pointed comments about the ongoing conflict between the regents and Powers:

“I really am convinced that some of the regents have decided that [UT-Austin President Bill Powers] should go. And they are really harassing him, making his life miserable, hoping he will resign,” Zaffirini said.

So far, the response on the 40 Acres hasn't been particularly strident, but with the latest developments in the last 48 hours it remains to be seen what the various student, faculty, and staff organizations do in the coming weeks. Last Thursday, the outgoing president of the Senate of College Councils, Michael Morton, described the conflict between the regents and Powers as “petty” as the Senate voted to support legislation to restrict the power of boards of regents.

So far the most pointed response has come from Professor Richard Cherwitz, a professor in the Communication Studies department and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium at UT.

Cherwitz's op-ed was published originally in the Alcade. He has given us permission to republish here. To show your support for Powers, please leave a comment on the original version

A Bridge Too Far: This Week's Controversial Vote By The Regents

By Richard Cherwitz

While hesitating for the past few months to write an op-ed about the ongoing skirmish between the Board of Regents and UT President Bill Powers, I can no longer refrain. The stakes are too high and the potential long-term damages to my institution too severe.

I have been a proud UT faculty member for 34 years. I have witnessed presidents come and go and have observed serious but respectful disagreements between UT and the Board of Regents. That is to be expected and not out of the ordinary. What is transpiring now, however, seems categorically different.

Although I am not privy to all the facts, from where I sit the actions of some of the regents-if not indicative of a “witch hunt” at minimum-seem to cross the lines of what is prudent and appropriate behavior in the best interests of the institution.

With all the important things we need to do to improve higher education, these political maneuverings by the regents are self-serving, counterproductive, and a huge distraction and obstacle to those of us who every day work in the trenches to educate students and make UT one of the best public research institutions.

Similar to the University of Virginia, the situation at UT represents an important moment in higher education-raising significant issues about how far governing boards should go in the name of “accountability” to oversee universities. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. Both parties understand that UT should not be micromanaged and that politics should not interfere with governance.

It is appropriate to expect universities to be accountable and reasonable to disagree with a president's policies. But when governing boards seek to fundamentally alter an institution's mission and metrics of evaluation-as was the case at Virginia and now Texas-they overstep their authority and severely jeopardize the quality of education.

The final straw is the regents' vote this week to undertake what some suggest is the fourth investigation of UT's relationship with the Law School Foundation. The logic of this is amazing: the regents want UT to become more efficient and reduce the cost of education. President Powers and UT take this challenge seriously, implementing a number of substantial and potentially effective measures. The response by some of the regents to these good faith efforts is to continue the assault on Powers and UT, now voting to spend $500,000 of taxpayer money to search for a smoking gun by undertaking another, needless investigation of UT's relationship with the Law School Foundation.

As a teacher of argumentation and critical thinking, I have an example for my class. As a taxpayer, I am outraged. As a professor wishing to stay focused on constructive improvements in higher education, I am deeply troubled. There is so much work that needs to be done and all of this slows us down and impedes progress.

Moreover, the continuing drama is severely hurting UT's reputation-something that took years to build but could be jeopardized overnight. I have already witnessed its impact on our ability to retain and lure top-notch administrators to help meet objectives shared by UT and the regents. And I now fear the negative impact on UT's ability to recruit the best students and faculty-our lifeblood.

What arguably began as an anti-intellectual challenge to UT's core strength as a public research institution devolved into what appears to me at least as an anti-UT and clearly anti-Bill Powers movement. The tactics have been nasty, far from transparent, and reprehensible. Students, faculty, and Texas citizens deserve better from those authorized to govern.

Show your support for Powers by commenting on the original Alcade piece.

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About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.

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