The president of the University of Texas at Austin got a rough start to Fourth of July weekend. On Wednesday, at a meeting down at the UT System offices, Bill Powers was told it was time for him to go. The president could resign by week’s end or be fired.
It was Powers’ outgoing boss, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who delivered the news. Cigarroa’s reasoning, whatever it was, hasn’t made it to the public in the flurry of reporting over the last couple of days by the Austin American-Statesman, the Texas Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, and Breitbart (who broke the story). UT System officials have declined to comment, and Powers is staying mum, too.
You can’t talk about Bill Powers without talking about Wallace Hall, the regent who has led a personal effort to oust the UT-Austin president. Over the past three years, Hall has spent his time digging up dirt on the campus president, or at least trying to. Among one of Hall’s most famous “data requests” included demanding to see all notes and correspondence from the president’s desk, including Post-It notes.
Hall is facing possible impeachment by a Legislative committee for all his digging, and the Travis County district attorney is also investigating Hall for possible violations of student privacy laws, although he has denied any wrongdoing. After a yearlong investigation, the House transparency committee voted in May that grounds do exist to impeach Hall. The committee is presently drafting articles of impeachment. It is worth observing that when that committee began its investigation, it told the UT System and the Board of Regents that they were not to fire anyone while their investigation was on, a directive that this ultimatum appears to contradict and that one of the committee chairs has since reminded the regents about.
The closest clue to what might actually lie at the heart of Cigarroa’s reasoning is the curious headline that ran on the Breitbart story: “Sources: Whistleblower Forcing Out UT President.” The headline likely refers to a supposed whistleblower from inside UT-Austin who allegedly told the chancellor about the UT-Austin president’s office interfering with the admissions process. Since then, Cigarroa has announced his intention to hire an outside firm to investigate UT-Austin admissions and specifically what role the president’s office has played (if any) in getting influential applicants to the top of the pile. This is on top of a full UT System-wide review his office is conducting on admissions processes.
A previous investigation by the UT System found that legislators do send in letters of recommendation, and that candidates with those letters get into UT Law and UT undergrad at a significantly higher rate than applicants without a legislator behind them. But that same report uncovered no evidence of any systematic process for favoring those backed by legislators.
Some press reports have noted that UT’s director of admissions, Kedra Ishop, announced recently that she is leaving to take a job at Michigan. But as Ishop told Alcalde, she was in talks to take the Michigan job, which represents a promotion, long before there was any investigation planned of UT-Austin admissions. “All this began before any of that, before the announcement,” Ishop said. “It was not part of it. Most important was making the right decision in what I’ve been doing for my career.”
On Thursday, Powers responded to Cigarroa with a letter in which he declined to resign, outlined reasons he thought he should stay until May, then offered to negotiate a timeline with the chancellor. Among his reasons for wanting to stay on as president were to finish his term as chairman of the AAU, the group of tier 1 teaching and research universities across the country, and to get through the coming legislative session, which begins in January. Powers also wants to complete the $3 billion Campaign for Texas, which is reportedly within $70 million of reaching its goal by August 31.
An online petition in support of Powers that began circulating on Friday has some 400 signatures on it. The Board of Regents are scheduled to meet in Austin next week, but the meeting schedule has not yet been posted.