Since last Thursday, the ongoing tensions between UT-Austin and its governing board have overtaken the political discourse and swallowed up column inches in news publications around the state and the nation. In response to UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s ultimatum for UT-Austin president Bill Powers to step down in October or be fired, politicians, editors, and everyday citizens have questioned Cigarroa’s action, a move that seemed to betray a change of heart on Cigarroa’s part.
In December, the chancellor vouched for Powers at a board meeting, essentially allowing him to stay in his role as president, while cautioning Powers to communicate more openly with Cigarroa, the System’s top administrator. Last week, the story changed when it was reported that Cigarroa asked Powers to resign or be fired.
Now Cigarroa has explained his reasoning. In a statement, Cigarroa cites “additional breakdowns in communication and trust” since the December meeting as cause for his ultimatum. He notes that relations between Powers and the UT System Board of Regents were already strained when Cigarroa took his post in 2009, and says that he “made it a priority to reach out to President Powers and to begin building a relationship based on cooperation and collaboration.” That relationship appears to have fallen apart completely.
Cigarroa did not provide specific instances of poor communication, but he said he and the regents will discuss Powers at the board meeting Thursday.
“Every decision I make as chancellor,” he writes, “is based on what is best for the university as a whole and its students and supporters, not for one individual.”
Powers responded to Cigarroa’s offer to resign in October with a counter-offer: Powers would step down after the 2015 legislative session, which runs from January through May, a plan that would allow Powers, in his estimation, to continue his one-year term as president of the prestigious American Association of Universities, complete the nearly finished $3 billon “Campaign for Texas,” and continue to guide the establishment of the Dell Medical School. Cigarroa’s statement suggests that he is past considering such an arragnement.
“I tried very hard to reach that agreement,” Cigarroa writes, “and am disappointed it has not happened.”
In February, Cigarroa announced his own intention to resign later this year.
The Austin American Statesman‘s editorial board cast doubt on Cigarroa’s behavior Monday, writing that they supported Powers’ request to resign next year.
“Cigarroa and regents have the right to dismiss a president,” they wrote “but they also have a responsibility to offer sound reasons for doing so. At this time, no one has provided reason to warrant Powers’ dismissal.”
Lawmakers have also weighed in, including Reps. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) and Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio). Both are members of the legislative committee drafting potential articles of impeachment of UT regent Wallace Hall, whose unusual document requests and inquiries pointed squarely at Powers have landed him under the legislature’s microscope for overstepping his role as regent and potentially violating privacy laws.
According to the San Antonio Express News, Martinez Fischer argued that if new information justifying Powers’ removal existed, it should be shared.
Martinez Fischer said that if Cigarroa has discovered new information warranting Powers’ dismissal that could change “the purpose and scope of our committee, you’d think they’d want us to know.”
“The actions being taken are certainly not being done in a transparent and public fashion,” he said.
… Larson suggested that if Powers departs along with Cigarroa, Hall should accompany them to give the UT board a clean slate. He said Hall’s “vendetta has damaged the university and its creditability.”
Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has decried the affair in a letter to regents’ chair Paul Foster. Johnson, also a member of the committee investigating Hall, scolded Foster for the System’s handling of the issue.
From the Tribune:
In a scathing letter sent to Paul Foster, the chairman of the UT System board, on Monday, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, described Cigarroa’s ultimatum as “brutish” and the system’s handling of the matter thus far as “unprofessional” and “amateurish.”
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has also chimed in. Dewhurst, who emotionally defended Powers on the Texas Senate floor last year, said he supported Powers’ proposed timeline for leaving the university.
“What’s the difference between Oct. 30 and May 30?” Dewhurst told the Tribune. “Let Bill Powers leave when he wants to on May 30 with his head held high. He deserves it. And if the UT regents don’t permit him, they will make it near impossible to replace Powers with a world-class president.”
The Board of Regents is expected to meet in Austin on Thursday.
You can read Cigarroa’s full statement below.
The relationship between President Bill Powers, the Board of Regents and the Office of the Chancellor has been strained to the point of becoming fractured for several years. This was the case from my first day as chancellor and even preceded my arrival.
When I took office in 2009, I made it a priority to reach out to President Powers and to begin building a relationship based on cooperation and collaboration. Unfortunately, the relationship has continued to be difficult throughout my tenure as chancellor, with significant additional breakdowns in communication and trust in recent months and since my comments at the December 2013 Board of Regents meeting.
In conversations last fall that led to my December comments, President Powers conveyed his desire to remain in office at least until the conclusion of his capital campaign and fulfillment of his term as chair of the Association of American Universities in October 2014. In my effort to accommodate his request, I recommended to President Powers last week a timeline for his departure that would allow him to achieve and celebrate those two important milestones.
I respect all the good things Bill Powers has done for The University of Texas at Austin and his years of public service, and I want to come to an agreement that will allow for a graceful transition and a positive starting point for new leadership at UT Austin. I tried very hard to reach that agreement and am disappointed it has not happened.
At this point, the next step is for me to have a conversation with the Board of Regents and for them to deliberate on how to move forward. This will take place at Thursday’s Board meeting.
Everything I do is in the best interest of The University of Texas. In recent days I have been accused of acting at the direction of the governor or some members of the Board of Regents in this decision and of taking steps that will ultimately damage UT Austin. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have supported Bill Powers consistently for the last five years, but this latest decision originates with the UT System’s Office of Academic Affairs and my office and is based on a breakdown of communication, collegiality, trust and a willingness to work together for the good of the university.
The University of Texas is bigger than any one individual, whether it is a chancellor, president, regent, faculty member or anyone else. Every decision I make as chancellor is based on what is best for the university as a whole and its students and supporters, not for one individual. That will continue to be what guides me as I serve out my term.
File photo of Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa by Matt Valentine.