Swords Down: Regents Pursue Peace After Controversial Week

With Powers Off the Docket, Regents Meet

The stage was set. With national media attention pointed at UT, Thursday’s UT System Board of Regents meeting was poised to be a textbook example of political theater. The characters—a controversial regent, an embattled university president, and the administrator caught between them—were in place, and the climax had been all but written: UT-Austin president Bill Powers was going to be fired.

Following System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s surprise ultimatum to Powers—resign in October or be fired—and his subsequent refusal of Powers’ counter-offer to resign after next year’s legislative session, faculty, staff, students, friends, and alumni of UT were all prepared for Powers’ final scene.

That was the script. Until it got flipped.

At a packed Faculty Council meeting in the Tower Wednesday, less than a day before the regents’ meeting, UT provost Gregory Fenves took the podium to make an unplanned announcement. Powers would stay at the helm of UT until June 2015. Cigarroa and Powers had reached an agreement at the 11th hour. The room erupted.

Powers was in attendance at the board meeting Thursday, not as a condemned man, but in his typical role as president, explaining the UT-Austin-related issues on the board’s agenda. Soothing nerves strained by years of controversy—and moving forward with System business—was a priority at the meeting.

“I think it’s time for people to put their swords down and start trying to look to the future,” Regent Alex Cranberg said.

The affair cast a shadow over the meeting, however, with Cigarroa, regents’ chair Paul Foster, and others addressing the latest episode in a series of ongoing tensions that has ensnared UT, the UT System, and the Texas Legislature. Alongside more mundane System business, some regents acknowledged the years-long stress to UT. Notably, Regent Wallace Hall—whose pursuit of Powers and investigations of the Tower have landed him in the legislature’s cross hairs and made him a rare candidate for impeachment—was silent on the issue.

Cigarroa praised Powers’ tenure and expressed hope for the future of Powers’ term, which is expected to include the conclusion of a $3 billion capital campaign and substantial construction of the Dell Medical School, while Foster urged all parties to move forward collegially and cautioned legislators against impeding the work of the System. From the Texas Tribune:

[Foster] asked that alumni groups not send threatening or disparaging messages to the chancellor when they disagree with his decisions. He asked that lawmakers allow the board to “do our jobs unimpeded.”

“I do not feel it is appropriate for the Legislature to try to influence personnel actions at one of our institutions,” he said, apparently referring to lawmakers who protested the possible firing of the UT-Austin president.

Afterward, Foster told reporters that his remarks were not meant as a rebuke of a legislative investigation into one of the board members, Regent Wallace Hall. Hall, Powers’ fiercest adversary, has been accused of abusing his power in pursuit of information about possible wrongdoing in Powers’ administration. Hall has denied any wrongdoing and said he was fulfilling the oversight duties of a regent.

The flurry of outcry that came after Cigarroa’s ultimatum clearly weighed on regents and System officials, who denied allegations of cronyism or subservience to Gov. Rick Perry. Many have accused the governor of pulling strings at the UT System to implement his vision of higher education reform. The Dallas Morning News reports:

After the meeting, Cigarroa said he received “voluminous non-constructive emails” after he asked for Powers’ resignation. Cigarroa said the emails accused him of working under the direction of Gov. Rick Perry and regents.

“Those allegations could be nothing further from the truth,” he said. “Governor Perry, no regent, no one directed me in that pathway. It was not at all politically motivated.”

The chancellor also told reporters that his ultimatum was not related to concerns about admissions at UT-Austin. Critics have accused the university of having too cozy a relationship with legislators, who they say are using their influence to get under-qualified candidates into UT and UT Law School. Along with a previously-announced second inquiry into UT-Austin admissions process and a System-wide admissions review, regents approved new rules to stave off future admissions concern. From Austin’s NBC affiliate, KXAN:

New guidelines will eliminate favoritism on behalf of the powerful or well-connected.

“The findings of our inquiry said ‘Yes, if you get letters from influential people there was a bit of advantage,’” Cigarroa said.

He added the inquiry findings did not find any favoritism connected with actions by Powers.

The new regulations call for total transparency in the admissions process, an admissions ombudsman on each campus, no acceptance of off-the-record solicitations from the powerful, and a threat to fire any violators.

Regents considered a full slate of items Thursday. Some notes:

  •  The push for campus construction bonds began. Regents approved a collection of so-called tuition-revenue-bond requests for the Legislature to consider next year, including renovations of the McCombs School of Business and Welch Hall. Lawmakers have failed to pass construction bonds since 2006, despite growing enrollment across the state.
  • The Dell Medical School took two big steps. The doctor of medicine degree plan for Austin’s new medical school was approved, along with the school’s partnership with Central Health, the Travis County health care district.

Finally, after the meeting, Chancellor Cigarroa let slip that DKR’s boozy potential will remain untapped this football season. While UT will continue to try out beer and wine sales at track, basketball, and baseball games, football games will remain dry for the time being.

File photo by Matt Valentine.


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