Politics
5:30 pm
Wed April 10, 2013

Agenda Texas: UT Regents Battle the Legislature

It’s a battle that’s enflamed passions on both sides and even brought one lawmaker to tears.

No, it’s not school funding, or abortion.  On its face, it’s an investigation over how the UT-Austin Law School Foundation ran a forgivable loan program.

But the saga is being described by some, and rather emotionally by Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, as a character assassination of UT-Austin president Bill Powers.

“This man deserves better treatment then what he’s getting,” Dewhurst said from the Senate dais during a resolution recognizing the work Powers has done at UT. “I am really upset about this. This issue is bigger than just UT-Austin and president Powers, although I’m very interested in that. This is about the reputation of the state of Texas."

So let’s back up a second and give a summary of the action so far.

Former Law School Dean Larry Sager was forced out in 2011 over his handling of the foundation, including the discovery he had received a half-million dollar forgivable loan from the foundation.

That triggered a review of the foundation’s practices, including how it functioned when Powers was dean of the law school. That report came back citing some problems, but it mostly cleared Powers of any wrongdoing.

But in a split vote, the UT System Board of Regents disregarded that study and commissioned another on foundation management. That didn’t sit well with some lawmakers, who have called the move a “witch hunt” that’s just trying to dig up dirt on Powers in order to fire him.

“Well you know again, as chancellor of the University of Texas system, I do not believe that it is a witch hunt," UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said.

He thinks the additional study is fine. But he adds by many measures, Powers has been a successful president.

"In regards to the work plan and in regards to the framework for advancing excellence, I would have to say that President Powers is doing his job," Cigarroa said.

So a couple of lawmakers have asked UT regents for documents on their investigation to determine if the regents’ have ulterior motives.

That’s brings us up to a special-called regents meeting set for Thursday morning. That’s when the board will decide whether or not to agree to lawmakers’ requests for records. They’ll also vote whether to have the Attorney General conduct the external review of the law school foundation and not a private firm.

The Texas Tribune’s Reeve Hamilton has been following the tensions between Powers and the Regents. He said it all goes back to the installation of a new group of regents that appeared ready to implement higher education reforms pushed by Gov. Rick Perry.

“That created this sense of distrust – where the traditional academics, like the Bill Powers of the world, did not trust this new group of regents,” Hamilton said. And that distrust has never gone away. "They have different philosophies about higher education that are only reconcilable to a certain point.”

But tomorrow’s votes aren’t about whether or not to repair the board’s relationship with Powers.

“This vote tomorrow is all about the relationship between the regents and the Capitol," Hamilton said. "And it’s a major fork in the road. The regents can vote one way and start to calm things down. Or they can vote another way and things will get, they will reach a fever pitch of tension.”

In other words: A vote to turn over documents and allow an AG investigation calms the waters. Voting against either – or both – will bring us to that fever pitch.

A quick thanks to everyone who e-mailed in their opinion on legalizing casinos in Texas. Our unofficial poll shows 100 percent of Agenda Texas listeners (who happened to email us) want casinos in Texas.

It’s not too late to join the debate. Our email is AgendaTexas@kut.org and we’re also on Twitter: @AgendaTexas.