Powers Takes His Leave

 

After nine years as president, Bill Powers reflects on a long, productive, and sometimes rocky journey.

Powers Takes His Leave

On June 2, 2015, William C. Powers Jr. will step down as president of the University of Texas at Austin. He will do so of his own volition but also under something not unlike duress.

Powers negotiated his resignation as UT-Austin’s 28th president back in July after a spat with his previous boss, Francisco Cigarroa, in an affair the press dubbed the July 4 Coup. Now, with his departure imminent and his successor, Greg Fenves, named, how will Powers’ tenure be remembered? He oversaw, among other things, the largest capital campaign in Texas history, an overhaul of the undergraduate experience, the creation of the Dell Medical School and the School of Undergraduate Studies, and a vast expansion into blended and online learning. But his time in office will also be remembered as among the most tempestuous in the university’s history. He is simultaneously one of UT’s most accomplished, beloved, and beleaguered presidents.

When I sat down with him in March, he had a few months left before exiting the ornate suite of offices on the fourth floor of the Main Building. I’ve been to countless meetings and events with Powers over the years, and I’ve watched from a closer vantage than most as he pursued the goals of his presidency while battling a governor, regents, and at times the chancellor of the UT System. Even in the twilight of his term, Powers is still cautious to discuss the more sensitive events. He let it be known that he plans to work on his memoirs once he returns to his old stomping grounds at the Law School this summer, and that will surely prove entertaining reading. His legacy, even if he wouldn’t directly say so, was on his mind.

He struck upon many of the same themes that have animated his remarkable presidency: a commitment to a vision of the university as among the top public teaching and research universities, his pride in rethinking the undergraduate experience, and his efforts to diversify the campus and protect the use of race in admissions. Trying to summarize Powers’ time in office is a daunting project, but this is an attempt to put into some context a few of the great big things Powers did, the great big controversies he had to navigate, and what it has all meant to the university we love.

TT: When you think back on your tenure as president, how would you summarize it?

BP: We got a lot accomplished. We went through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. I’m proud of the fact that the campus and the deans didn’t just say, “Oh well, there’s nothing we can do,” and go dead in the water. And then, of course, there was a lot of political material as well.

***

Unless you’ve been unplugged for the past few years, you likely know that Powers has been involved in a prolonged battle over the direction of the university. This is the “political material” he refers to. Powers clashed with the previous governor, Rick Perry, and some of the regents he appointed. Years ago, Powers and Perry were cordial—even wine-drinking buddies—before Perry was persuaded by Jeff Sandefer, BS ’82, Life Member, a former UT lecturer, who thought college professors spent too much time researching and not enough time teaching. He came up with seven “breakthrough solutions” and presented them to the regents of Texas public universities. Powers resisted some of the solutions and became a target and a champion, depending on your point of view.

In various speeches over the years, Powers has tended toward the romantic—he often spoke of the university as preparing students for the workforce, but also expanding knowledge and advancing the human condition. Over the last few years, Powers has amassed a kind of cult following among the university community. The Faculty Council, a body that for much of UT’s history has been lukewarm toward the administration, has supported Powers repeatedly. Students treat him like a rock star. “Here’s a guy under stress,” says John Barnhill, BJ ’59, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, Past President of the Texas Exes and a member of the Board of Regents from 2003-09, “having problems with the regents, and he walks past the student section at a basketball game and they cheer him. It gives you chills. For a university president, that’s incredible.” Alumni have been equally supportive. Gordon Appleman, BA ’59, Life Member, Past President, and Distinguished Alumnus, has been one of Powers’ most vocal and aggressive supporters. When asked how Powers should be remembered, Appleman writes, “With unyielding dignity and resolve, and at great personal sacrifice, Powers maintained the strength and excellence of the university in the face of persistent, pernicious, well-financed opposition.” Melinda Perrin, BS ’69, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, says: “No other leader in UT history has possessed the degree of courage and fight of Bill Powers.”

TT: In 2010, I was in here interviewing you in advance of the session, and I asked, “What are you worried about?” I was expecting you to talk about funding and you said, “what’s happening at A&M.” Can you explain what was going on and why it concerned you so much?

BP: At A&M there was an accountability issue, what came to be called the red and black report, which evaluated faculty without evaluating their research output at all. And I think that’s been an issue not just in Texas but around the country—a lack of support for the research mission, not of every university, but of our research universities and especially our public universities. That’s been a lot of the debate over what this university and what Texas A&M ought to be like.

***

One of the high moments for Powers came when his peers in the Association of American Universities elected him chairman. Academia’s most prestigious club, the AAU is widely considered the gateway to being called a Tier One school. “Bill is a person of real integrity,” says Hunter Rawlings, president of the AAU, “and that is how his colleagues at AAU see him. When he speaks up, he is worth listening to. The other presidents clearly respect him.” Powers assuming the chairmanship of the AAU made him, essentially, the national spokesperson for top-flight teaching and research universities.

But even when he was the chairman of the AAU, Powers’ job appeared to be on the line. A bitterly divided board of regents, particularly three who joined the board in 2011 and, along with then-chairman Gene Powell, never got along with Powers. One in particular, Wallace Hall, told Texas Monthly in April 2013 that, when he joined the board, he reached out to Powers but felt like he “never hugged him back.” Hall began waging a one-man inquisition of Powers, demanding voluminous amounts of information from him and his staff—even Post-it notes from Powers’ office. Hall’s pursuit of Powers became so dogged that legislators got involved. A special House committee investigated Hall and censured (but did not impeach) him; a Travis County grand jury issued a letter calling Hall’s behavior abusive and urging his removal (but did not indict him). Even the chairman of the board of regents, Paul Foster, publicly called on Hall to resign. Hall declined, and each time he has been criticized he has maintained that he has only ever done his duty as a regent, uncomfortable as it may have been for Powers. “It has been a turbulent time,” says Bobby R. Inman, BA ’50, Life Member, Past President, Distinguished Alumnus, of Powers’ tenure. “A lot of that is not of [Powers’] making: a declining budget, a governor who was basically hostile to the university and who made a lot of appointments who shared the governor’s hostility. And no matter what the president accomplished, in their view it was bound to be bad.”

Not that Powers made things much easier for them. He is known as strong-willed. When Powers first began clashing with regents in the spring of 2011, it wasn’t just casual agree-to-disagree detente. Both sides appeared to believe the stakes were high, so each dug in. “Apparently he was bucking them pretty hard,” Barnhill says, of the regents who appeared to want a more utilitarian, job-training university in the model of Arizona State. “That’s the Bill that I remember,” Barnhill says. “He could be difficult. More than one of the past chairmen had disagreements with him. His biggest weakness is one of this biggest strengths. It’s what makes him strong, in that he doesn’t give in, but he does work for these people.”

“Bill has a prickly personality,” Inman explains. “He is not inclined to warmly accept criticism. And when it comes from people he doesn’t admire, he responds even less warmly.”

The saga between some of the regents and Powers has both brightened his tremendous record of accomplishment and overshadowed it. Michael Webber, BA, BS ’95, Life Member, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and deputy director of UT’s Energy Institute, observes that everyone knows about the UT drama, but far fewer people know that in the area of blended and online learning Powers has quietly overseen a revolution on campus. UT is now among the nation’s leaders in online courses, flipped classrooms, and the use of technology to gather real-time information about how students are learning. Webber’s class saw more than 70,000 students enroll across the world, and a subsequent app he and his team developed is now being used by Stanford and Duke.

In response to a recommendation from a group of prominent alumni known as the Commission of 125, Powers created UGS, a place for students who are undecided about a major to be exposed to options and advising. Students who start in UGS tend to decide on a major and stick with it, graduate on time, and leave with less debt.

UGS is just one part of a larger effort by Powers and his team to reinvigorate the undergraduate experience on campus. When I arrived on campus in 2001, the common warning was that UT treated you like a number. One way that Powers intended to address this was with the creation of Signature Courses. These are smaller classes led by esteemed faculty, and they are supposed to allow for a bit of intellectual wandering. For first-year students, this is a far cry from Economics 301 or other massive lecture-hall courses. Powers himself teaches a Signature Course in which they discuss various schemas for understanding the world. That Powers teaches a class is, in the words of Hunter Rawlings, very unusual for the CEO of a major institution. “Not only does [Powers] talk the talk,” Rawlings says. “He walks the walk.”

It’s a bittersweet goodbye. In many ways, he has lived up to using the presidency to challenge where we have been institutionally with regard to race and diversity.

TT: I guess every UT president to some degree faces, as you said, political material.

BP: Public universities are part of the political landscape. Every public university in every era navigates how that relationship works with the public. There have been some eras when the question of the value and the style of flagship higher education comes into question, and we’ve been through one of those.

***

People who know Powers invariably say that one of his strengths is his skill with legislators. Legislators admire and like Powers personally. His time as a law school professor, dean, and occasional consultant to the state have endeared him to the denizens of the pink granite building. Powers often meets one-on-one with legislators, and he is seen as a reliable and even-handed source for information on UT-Austin, and that has helped Powers negotiate some legislative wins for the university, notably a cap on the Top 10 Percent Law. Skilled and liked as he is, Powers couldn’t stop devastating cuts to higher ed funding in 2011; he struggled to secure a tuition-revenue bond (no campus has gotten one since 2006, though they might this session); and most recently, the divisive issue of guns on campus, which he opposes, looks as though it will be signed into law.

Powers’ critics often argue that his easy way with elected representatives is actually coziness. And in Powers’ time as president, few issues endured as much scrutiny as the degree to which Powers was willing to intervene in the admissions process on behalf of legislators. As a public entity, UT has many masters. The public, first and foremost; current students and their parents; faculty and staff; alumni; and, of course, legislators. When news broke that Powers had intervened on behalf of some connected applicants, there was a host of reactions, from outrage to yawns. There were those who believed any interference in the admissions process is out of bounds, most notably Regent Hall, who is now calling for an investigation of legislators who pulled strings to get applicants admitted (Powers says Hall himself used his influence in admissions). Others find it wholly unsurprising that the president of a state university makes allowance for special cases. “We’re a public university, and as such when you represent the public you have many stakeholders,” Perrin says. “One, of course, is the legislature. To ignore their important role is very short-sighted.”

Throughout the various investigations into admissions processes under Powers, he has said openly that he does intervene on rare occasions, as has every UT-Austin president since the university’s founding. His doing so violates no state law, regents rule, or policy. But that has not stopped critics from painting Powers’ as a legislative lackey.

We’re a public university, and a such when you represent the public you have many stakholders. One, of course, is the Legislature. To ignore their important role is very short-sighted.

TT: Let’s talk about the Fisher case. How did you come to develop your opinion about the appropriateness of the use of race in admissions?

BP: I’ve watched the university make a lot of progress diversifying. It matters to the quality of education that all of our students get, and it matters for all Texans that we have a diverse group of leaders in the state. We’ve got to get qualified and excellent people. Being able to take ethnicity into account helps in one of the most important social issues in our society—to have pathways to leadership that are open to first-generation students, minority students, and to the whole population.

***

One of the most lasting elements of Powers’ legacy is likely to be his steadfast defense of the use of race in admissions. This is a long and complicated story, but in short, the university has fought for and continues to reserve the right to consider race as part of the holistic review of some applicants. The university has made its case to the courts, even the U.S. Supreme Court, and, at press time, the policy remains legal and in place, having won in the trial court and on appeal. Yet the Supreme Court this summer may decide to take up, once again, whether and under what circumstances universities may use race in admission. Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the case against UT, argues that she was denied admission to UT because she was white. The case has bounced up and down the judicial jungle-gym, and throughout it all Powers has maintained that even with the Top 10 Percent Law acting as a surrogate for race, it’s still of a compelling educational interest that UT be able to take race into account when evaluating the 25 percent of applicants not automatically admitted under Top 10.

Powers established the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to rework UT’s relationship with historically underrepresented groups. The numbers show that, to some extent, Powers succeeded in diversifying the student body. The number of Hispanic students is up considerably since he became president. The number of African-American students is up slightly. The Anglo student population is down in proportion to the rise in Hispanic students, and Asian-American students remain overrepresented at UT as a percentage of the Texas population. Powers has had significant success in diversifying the faculty, and in placing new emphasis on studying historically underrepresented communities. He elevated a center for the study of African and African-American Diaspora studies into a department, which is now one of the largest of its kind in the country, and encouraged departments to broaden their faculty searches to get well-qualified minority candidates. These efforts have made him a national leader in how to diversify college campuses, says Richard Reddick, BA ’95, Life Member, and an associate professor of education. “It’s a bittersweet goodbye when he leaves because, in many ways, he has lived up to using the presidency to challenge where we have been institutionally with regard to race and diversity.”


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TT: Some of what may be contributing to the national angst around higher education is the issue of student debt. What is your reaction to that?

BP: We want to make the University of Texas as affordable as we can. But we also need to worry about the quality of that education. Somebody from Houston, or Dallas, or San Antonio, or Copperas Cove, or Fort Stockton ought not to have to go out of state to get an education at one of the great research universities.

***

Powers will tell you that the biggest driver of affordability is how many semesters a student spends on campus. In 2012, he challenged the university community to raise the four-year graduation rate from the low 50s, where it had languished for years, to 70 percent by 2017. A task force made a host of recommendations for how to improve student success—remove barriers to registering, give priority to students approaching graduation, re-imagine orientation, more sensibly deploy financial aid to target students most in danger of falling off or behind—all of which are now at work. Early indications are promising: The university has seen two consecutive semesters of record retention, meaning the percentage of students who matriculated in the fall of 2013 that returned for the spring of 2014 was higher than any class before. That is, until the following year, when UT broke its own record. Should the campus manage to make it to a 70 percent graduation rate, Powers should receive credit.

Which brings us, perhaps surprisingly, to athletics. When Powers first announced the goal of a 70 percent four-year graduation rate, many of UT’s sports teams already had that percentage or better of their athletes making it out on time. Powers is himself a sports diehard. He is regularly seen at football games, but he’s also a fixture courtside at men’s and women’s basketball games and volleyball matches. I have seen him at Disch-Falk Field wearing cutoff jeans and sandals. “Other presidents have enjoyed athletics but I don’t think the way he does,” Barnhill says. “He’s into it, big time.” As president, Powers oversaw four national championships: men’s swimming and diving in 2009-10 and 2014-15, men’s golf in 2011-12, and volleyball in 2012-13. Football and baseball had near-misses, but men’s basketball has been in the wilderness. “Bill has been willing to tackle tough problems, particularly as performance in athletics declined in major sports,” Inman says, who credits Powers with the difficult decision to usher Mack Brown out the door. Longtime men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes is the latest casualty, though how involved Powers was in that is, at the moment, unclear.

What Powers can also point to is a largely scandal-free run in athletics, save a lawsuit that takes note of two inappropriate relationships between coaches and students that were handled differently by the university. UT boasts a sterling reputation with the NCAA. Its compliance operation is world-class. And, for several years running, the Longhorn brand has been the most profitable in collegiate sports. The athletic department even had a number of years when it was so profitable it was writing big checks to subsidize academic initiatives on campus. With Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart hired, Texas athletics may be on the verge of an upswing.

Twenty to 30 years from now people will look back and the medical school will be the most transformative single event that took place.

TT: The Campaign for Texas, completed last year, raised a record $3.12 billion dollars, the largest capital campaign by any Texas university. Why did you make such an ambitious goal, and how do you think you pulled it off?

BP: A lot of people said “set a goal you can meet.” They said to set it for $2 billion—that would sound like a big number. I remember thinking, I’d rather set it at $3 billion and reach $2.8 billion than set it at $2 billion and raise $2.2 billion. The point is to raise the money for the benefit of the students and the faculty and the university.

***

Like it or not, raising money is a major feature of being the president of a university. For a place like UT-Austin, it is increasingly central to its performance relative to its peers. On the metric of dollars raised, Powers’ completion of the largest capital campaign in the history of the state places him among the most prolific fundraisers to occupy the president’s office. Powers’ predecessor, Larry Faulkner, raised $1 billion in the We’re Texas campaign, no small feat. Powers tripling it, during an economic downturn, is a remarkable achievement, says Kenny Jastrow, who chaired the Campaign for Texas. “The campaign’s success is a direct result of Bill’s leadership and reflects donors’ support not only for our great university but also for President Powers and everyone involved with the University of Texas.” Appleman agrees that the campaign’s success can be attributed directly to Powers. “The goal of an unprecedented $3 billion was exceeded in large measure because of the support for his vision and persuasion,” he says. “Donors, alumni, and non-alumni in large numbers contributed to the campaign in the belief that what starts here changes the world.”

As part of the campaign, the campus saw a construction boom. The list of new structures on the Forty Acres during Powers’ tenure is impressive: the Student Activity Center, Biomedical Engineering, Liberal Arts Building, the renovation of the Norman Hackerman Building, the Gates Dell Complex, and the Belo Center for New Media. Now under construction is the Engineering Education and Research Center and Rowling Hall, which will be home to the new graduate school of business. And, perhaps most significantly, the Dell Medical School.

TT: Could you talk about how the Dell Medical School came to be and what you think it will mean?

BP: Twenty to 30 years from now people will look back and the medical school will be the most transformative single event that took place. It will enhance all the health-related research we’re doing, it will improve clinical care. I think it will develop new ways of delivering health care, which in some ways is more of an issue in America today than is the actual care. It took some patience and not rushing ahead before we got the funding, but it got done.

***

The first thing to say about a medical school is that there hasn’t been a new one created at a major teaching and research university in decades. The chief advantage that its proponents perceive is its newness. “Starting from scratch” is the phrase often thrown around, but it is actually true. Everything about the medical school is being designed with an eye toward redefining the way health care is delivered and how doctors and health care professionals are trained.

Adding a medical school to UT-Austin has long been a dream, ever since the UT Medical Branch was first separated from the Austin campus more than a century ago. In the hunt for federal research dollars, UT has trailed competitors because it did not have a med school. Given how strong the biomedical sciences and engineering departments are, its highly ranked nursing and social work and pharmacy schools, and the fact that the most popular major at UT is pre-med, adding a medical school is akin to putting a supercharger on an already speedy car. “The launching of the medical school has provided a foundational cornerstone for medical education and health care of the future,” says Rudy Garza, MBA ’91, Life Member and Past President of the Texas Exes. “The possibilities it has generated for future financial investment and startup business opportunities will have ripple effects for generations, and could potentially top Bill’s amazing fundraising history as the most lasting impact of his tenure.”

TT: Are there certain things you want to be known for?

BP: My first meeting when I became president was with the deans. And, of course, I knew them, they’d been colleagues, but they were curious about my style. I said, the one thing I’d ask you to do today is read Moneyball. And I think now people would say we’re a Moneyball campus. And what I mean by that is you’ve got to be very strategic about how you use your resources. Where do you want to get and now how are we going to channel our resources to get there?

***

Of all the things Powers tells me he wants to be remembered for, this is the most surprising. I knew Powers liked the Michael Lewis book, Moneyball, which details how general manager Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s managed to compete against the best teams in baseball, despite vastly trailing them in resources, with the ruthless and unemotional application of statistics. It’s an illuminating bit about him, and when you consider how the university might resemble those scrappy Oakland A’s, the similarities are manifest. UT doesn’t have the resources that Harvard does, despite what people think about the Permanent University Fund (It gets shared across the entire UT and A&M systems). It doesn’t even have the resources per student that Michigan or Berkeley or Wisconsin does. Yet for UT to compete with these schools, it must do more with less. Perhaps that is why Powers found that book so compelling—it gave him a vision for how UT could join the top tier of America’s public universities without a massive influx of new state money.

The University of Texas at Austin does use its resources efficiently. It is among the most efficient of any Texas state agency. And when you calculate, as Powers likes to do, just how many students it educates for the amount of money per student it is allocated, it bats better than expected. But as the A’s found out the hard way, stretching resources can only take you so far. It couldn’t get them the World Series title. What does that all mean for Powers and Texas? That’s for others to say. But if the Powers’ legacy is further elevating the University of Texas within its constitutionally-mandated promised land—a university of the first class—particularly despite such serious threats to its reputation, well that’s something Powers can forever hang his hat on.

Photos by Wyatt McSpadden

 

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