TXEXplainer: The Latest on the ‘July 4th Coup’

TXExplainer: The Latest on the ‘July 4th Coup’ It’s the Monday after, but the fireworks are still exploding. In what’s been dubbed a “July 4th coup,” UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa asked UT-Austin president Bill Powers to resign—or be fired, presumably at this Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting. Reports of the ultimatum made local and national headlines, setting off a powder keg of responses, articles, and letters. The tensions between the System board and UT-Austin, which have recently netted the attention of lawmakers and political activists, have been smoldering for years. Cigarroa’s request, however, goes against his own recommendation last December. At a hotly anticipated regents meeting, Cigarroa recommended, and the board approved, Powers’ continued role as president. The meeting came in the midst of the legislature’s investigation of Regent Wallace Hall, whose own investigations of UT-Austin and Powers have raised eyebrows across the state. The committee investigating Hall has found grounds for impeachment and, potentially, violations of privacy statutes. While the legislature has continued to dig into Hall’s behavior, which Hall has repeatedly refused to explain to lawmakers without a subpoena, the chorus of voices backing Hall has grown more vocal. Here’s what we know (and some of what we don’t know) after this weekend’s developments.

Cigarroa Asked Powers to Step Down Before the Holiday Weekend

Rumors that Powers might be forced out by a hostile group of regents have defined university politics since 2011, when word first spread that the former law school dean might be ousted. Those whispers spawned the “Save Bill Powers” social media campaign, which saw renewed interest this weekend. Accusations of influence-peddling in admissions, particularly to the law school, have intensified lately, with Cigarroa announcing a new, independent inquiry of UT-Austin admissions two weeks ago. The review is in addition to a System-led review of UT-Austin admisisons, and a larger System-wide admissions review. That was the latest in the ongoing saga when Powers met Cigarroa last Wednesday, when the chancellor apparently explained the ultimatum to Powers. The story was broken by the conservative political blog Breitbart Texas in a piece penned by former A&M Cadet, activist, and UT Law School critic Michael Quinn Sullivan, currently under investigation himself by the Texas Ethics Commission. Sullivan runs the advocacy group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, also know as Empower Texans. Sullivan credited an unnamed “whistleblower” with evidence of wrongdoing in his report Thursday, though that evidence has yet to come to light:

Two highly placed sources say University of Texas president Bill Powers has been given a choice: resign by the end of the day July 4, or be fired next week. The order comes as a whistleblower has allegedly stepped forward with information tying Powers directly to a growing admissions scandal. The sources tell Breitbart Texas that the decision to axe Powers came early Thursday, with the ultimatum handed down by UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Board of Regents chairman Paul Foster.

The Letter Writing Began (And Continued)

Powers’ supporters, as they’ve done before, rallied to the cause over the weekend. They defended the UT president, who is also chairman of the American Association of Universities this year, through a petition (nearing 10,000 signatures at press time), social media, and letter writing. A letter from Texas Exes board president Kay Bailey Hutchison and chairman Charles Matthews spells out the organization’s lament that this controversy has flared yet again. The email was sent over the weekend to all Texas Exes members. (Note: Texas Exes is the independent alumni organization of UT-Austin and the publisher of the Alcalde.)

A forced resignation or firing would be a travesty for UT. It would cause further tension with legislators regarding UT System, would compound unrest among faculty, students, and alumni, and invoke serious harm to the institution’s reputation in the national spotlight. President Powers has advanced the university through many tremendous accomplishments, and has been a great leader; he deserves better than this. This is about our university; it is a treasure that alumni need to protect and we need to stand up and fight for its stature. The University of Texas at Austin deserves better than this.

The committee charged with investigating Hall took a break from drafting proposed articles of impeachment to send the UT System a letter reminding them that they had been warned against “adverse employment action” during their ongoing work. From the Texas Tribune:

Last July, as part of that investigation, [Rep. Carol] Alvarado and her co-chairman, state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, sent a letter to Gene Powell, then-chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, instructing the board not to take any “adverse employment action” against a list of people related to their inquiry, including Powers. “I don’t know what part of the letter people didn’t comprehend,” Alvarado said. “I don’t appreciate the selective memory some people seem to have.”

Powers Proposed a “Graceful” Exit

In response to the ultimatum, Powers wrote a letter to Cigarroa outlining a third option. Powers proposed that he step down after the upcoming legislative session, slated to start in January and last through the spring. The extra time, Powers explained, would help him finish his work on some of the university’s biggest projects, including the new Dell Medical School and the massively ambitious “Campaign for Texas,” which is only $70 million short of its $3 billion goal. From Powers’ letter, via the Tribune:

“I understand that this response is different from your request I resign this year,” Powers wrote, in a letter obtained by the Tribune. “I do think my proposal to resign at the end of the legislative session is a constructive one and in the best long-term interest of UT-Austin. Throughout my tenure, I have always striven to act in the best interests of the University. I believe a graceful rather than abrupt departure after nine years in office is in keeping with that.”

The Tribune also reported today that Cigarroa will confer with the board to determine their next moves. Cigarroa is scheduled to make a recommendation regarding Powers at the regents’ Thursday meeting.

We Don’t Know What Prompted Cigarroa

The ability to fire a university president has figured into discussion of UT and its board for years, now, and it’s been confirmed that the chancellor, on the advice of the vice chancellor for academic affairs, is the one with the power to oust a president. That’s what’s on the upcoming regents’ meeting agenda, and it’s not the first time it’s been there. Cigarroa has previously defended Powers, even when noting that his communication with the System could be improved. Perhaps notably, the chancellor is also a lame duck, having announced in February his own resignation, which is set for later this year. Cigarroa’s term has been defined by UT infighting, despite the fact that his term saw the establishment of a new UT System university in his native Rio Grande Valley, as well as the establishment of two medical schools, one in the Valley and one in Austin—a major resume line for Powers, as well. A surgeon by trade, Cigarroa will return to medicine full time after he steps down, though he has not yet said when that will be. Photo by Marsha Miller.


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