Senators to Regent Nominees: ‘Move Beyond the Controversy’

Senators to Regent Nominees: 'Move Past the Controversy'

Update: The Senate Nominations Committee unanimously approved all three regent nominees Tuesday. They now go to the full Senate for confirmation.

The chair of the Senate nominations committee had four words for two men hoping to become UT regents and a third who wants to remain one—”move beyond the controversy.”

Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican, wrapped up a lengthy and at times pointed hearing that consumed most of the morning and a good part of the afternoon with a clear message for Jeff Hildebrand, Ernest Aliseda, and Paul Foster: Enough is enough. Make it stop. He’s sick of hearing about it.

The “it” is the ongoing tension—it was also called a “situation,” “controversy,” “war,” and “disgraceful mess”—that has pitted the UT System Board of Regents against UT-Austin president Bill Powers and those who support his vision for the campus, including most of the Texas Legislature. Over the course of the 83rd legislative session, that tension rose from bubbling to boiling and is now, with a week to go in the session, perhaps simmering.

It began in February with an emotional show of support for Powers when it was rumored that his job was in jeopardy. Many of the senators who stood up for Powers on the Senate floor were there today in the Betty King room of the Capitol, and some made guest appearances at the hearing even though they aren’t on the nominations committee.

The senators spent most of the hearing asking Regent Foster, who has been on the board for six years already, to answer for a series of events that has irked legislators, from the decision to investigate a now-defunct forgivable loan program to massive and ongoing data requests to what legislators perceive as dilly-dallying with turning over documents they wish to see. Foster, who is considered a swing vote on the board, said he did not condone the actions of some of his colleagues.

If he were to be named the next board chairman, he said, he would work with his regents in a serious effort to significantly reduce not only data requests but the investigative approach taken by some board members. “I don’t think it’s beneficial,” Foster said. “My personal view is that it’s not the right one.”

Hildebrand, a Houston energy executive, said he thought the ongoing tension was “damaging the UT brand,” and that he would do all that he could to keep his (possible) future colleagues focused on setting vision and not micromanaging, a charge the board has faced from legislators. Nor was he coming into the job to do the bidding of his longtime friend Jeff Sandefer, author of the Seven Solutions, or with orders to fire Powers.

“After having spoken with 10 ex-regents,” Hildebrand relayed, “one said ‘Jeff, your job as a regent is to hire great presidents, the chancellor’s job is to fire presidents.’”

Aliseda, a municipal judge from McAllen and U.S. Army Reservist, said he too would defer to the chancellor when it comes to firing a president or not.

“As a member of the military,” Aliseda said. “I’m very cognizant of the chain-of-command.”

Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and 40-year veteran of the Legislature, wasn’t convinced. Despite all three men pledging not to remove Powers unless the chancellor recommended it, Whitmire said he thought the regents might simply force the chancellor to cut Powers loose or be removed himself.

“If I had to vote now,” Whitmire said, “I’d vote no. I  don’t want to play any part in the removal of President Powers. I think you’re on a mission.”

Earlier in his remarks, Foster insisted that the Board has never seriously discussed firing Powers. They have had informal conversations about a transition, but not forced.

Foster said Powers had been a challenge to the board at times. How he was difficult or on what issues, Foster didn’t say. But he and the committee members found agreement in one respect: Foster, like the legislators, wanted the Powers fight to be over.

“We spend a lot of time talking about [Powers], and I think it’s a big distraction. I wish we could put it behind us.”

Hegar said a vote to confirm the nominees could come as early as Monday night.


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