Powell, McCombs, and the Fog of War

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Powell, McCombs, and the Fog of War

It’s been a busy week in Texas higher education news, and as usual The University of Texas stands at the center. Two major stories from the last week warrant mention, beginning with a lengthy two-part Texas Monthly interview with Gene Powell, chairman of the UT Board of Regents.

Powell’s interview (Part OnePart Two) comes hot on the heels of an op-ed that ran in the Houston Chronicle under the byline of Red McCombs, the prominent University of Texas supporter from San Antonio and Distinguished Alumnus for whom the business school is named.

Both of these articles deserve the close attention of alumni and should be read in full, and in context.

The basic upshot of Powell’s 11,000-word interview and McCombs’ op-ed is that they believe the regents have been unfairly criticized and their accomplishments have gone overlooked in what Powell calls a “fog of war.” First, McCombs:

I am a UT-Austin alumnus and there are few things in life I am more passionate about than my alma mater. Believe me, if I thought there was a systematic effort to hurt the University in any way, I would be a most vocal defender. When I look at the level of support and funding the regents have provided to UT-Austin over the past several years, I am dumbfounded that this perception of conflict persists. What conflict?

Now, here’s the chairman talking about the board:

It’s a great story about a team that has changed how things are going to be done in America, and yet Texas and the nation don’t really know the story. They know all about the salacious things. They know about Bill Powers and the tension. But the story that we’re missing is that right here under our noses, we’re changing the face of higher education.

In the same interview, Powell suggests that since he became chairman back in 2011, the Texas Exes and its many prominent alumni have operated largely out of fear based on misplaced assumptions about what the regents may or may not be up to. Here’s the excerpt:

So I would say the very first thing that happened was a great deal of fear from alumni, and the administration, and the staff. This fear created a group of assumptions that everybody started to hypothesize about. “Here are these new regents. What are they going to do?” When I mentioned blended online learning, the first response was, “Well, the chairman wants to turn us into the University of Phoenix or make us a diploma mill. He’s going to cheapen the university by wanting more enrollment or lower tuition. He wants to separate teaching from research. He doesn’t like research. The board doesn’t like research. They’re going to do away with all research dollars for the arts or the humanities.” These are just samples of what happened. So we had this fear, we had these assumptions. People then started to email their friends, and the Texas Exes got in on it, and before long the assumptions became almost set in concrete.

The first point worth exploring here is that Powell believes the board has not been sufficiently recognized for its work. That may be true, but it cannot be said that the Texas Exes or Alcalde has ignored or minimized it. This magazine has published several articles relating to the UT-Austin medical school and the regents’ backing of it.  The announcement of their support for the UT-Austin medical school, we covered. The unveiling of the plans, we covered. And the approval of those plans, we also covered. The Texas Exes even launched a campaign in support of Proposition 1, the Travis County ballot initiative that helped make the medical school possible. In his September 2012 column kicking off the effort and urging alumni to support it, Texas Exes president John Beckworth praised the regents for their “far-sighted investment” in the medical school. And a video we produced in support of the medical school highlighted the regents’ commitment to making it happen.

When the regents announced their support for $105 million in matching money to help build the new Engineering Education and Research Center at UT-Austin, our headline read: “Regents Step In to Help Fund New Engineering Center.” The Texas Exes made the EERC one of its five legislative priorities and has since mobilized hundreds of alumni during the 83rd Legislative session to help persuade legislators to make a capital investment in it. The third pillar of financial support for the EERC is private philanthropy, and the Texas Exes is supporting engineering dean Greg Fenves in his quest to raise the money.

The regents may well deserve more attention and appreciation than they have gotten. And people may well stand to have more information about what’s going on. The Texas Exes and the Alcalde are committed to doing both.

The second point worth mentioning here is Powell’s claim that the Texas Exes has operated out of fear, and that we have allowed or perhaps even promoted rumors about the board’s intentions without asking what they really were. Before his interview with Texas Monthly, Powell had done one equivalent question-and-answer article in the previous two years—it was in this magazine in January 2012. We asked Powell our questions, and we published his answers.

The chairman acknowledges that there is and has been widespread concern about the regents and what they are up to. Over the past three years, students, alumni, faculty, previous members of the UT System board and administration, and most recently Texas legislators have voiced publicly their reservations about the perceived direction in which the regents are taking UT-Austin and how they are managing the campus. The explanation he offers is that people have bad information. But it’s possible that bad information is not what’s to blame. Equally plausible is that these groups, all of whom have a vested interest in the future of UT, don’t have enough information or find the info they do have unpersuasive. According to a recent article in the San Antonio Express-News, UT students would like more information from the System. And state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a longtime champion of UT-Austin, has expressed frustration with the System for failing to respond to requests for information, one of which she submitted two years ago.

It’s certainly true that the regents have shown great financial support of UT-Austin at a time when the System’s coffers are at record highs. That is both commendable and much appreciated by anyone who wants UT-Austin to succeed. But advancing the mission is about more than just financial support. According to many longtime UT observers, some board members maintain a confrontational posture toward UT-Austin. Ongoing demands for data (in violation of the gentleman’s agreement Powell mentions was reached with the Framework), a scrutinizing of the Campaign for Texas, and an investigation into nonprofit organizations that support the campus all contribute to a general feeling of animosity from the regents toward the campus. Rep. Jim Pitts worries the regents are on “witch hunts” to oust President Powers. Faculty members have long memories, and though Powell doesn’t mention Rick O’Donnell, the former UT System consultant who labeled the majority of UT-Austin faculty as “coasters” and “dodgers,” it is a wound that’s yet to heal.

The regents may well deserve more attention and appreciation than they have gotten. And people may well stand to have more information about what’s going on. The Texas Exes and the Alcalde are committed to doing both.

If there’s a fog of war, as the chairman suggests, our interest is in dispelling it.


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