The UT Board of Regents is expected to discuss the employment of University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers during its executive session today. It’s the first time his employment has been placed on the agenda for discussion – and the latest development in what’s become a power struggle among state leadership.
The scene: boardrooms, committee chambers or behind closed doors. The characters: men who hold power in the Texas capitol, or the UT Tower. But how did the situation get to this point?
The "Seven Breakthrough Solutions"
Some say tensions came to head in 2011, when UT Austin’s College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl wrote a step-by-step response to the "Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education."
Developed by a conservative think tank, and supported by Gov. Rick Perry as early as 2008, it was a plan framed as seven ways to fix higher education in Texas.
“What they [the Seven Breakthrough Solutions] sought to do was to reward teachers, increase accountability with which public education conducts itself with help of taxpayer dollars, and increase transparency with which these taxpayer institutions operate," says Tom Lindsay with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the group behind the proposals.
But UT Austin said it's the wrong approach.
Earlier that year, Perry had appointed three new regents to the board. One of them was Wallace Hall.
“Some of the current regents came into their positions with an agenda,” says Pamela Willeford with the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.
Willeford says that agenda included implementing the reforms Perry supported – and getting rid of Bill Powers.
The fight at the Forty Acres may be the most dramatic illustration of a trend across America.
“We’re in a period right now that a number of Republican governors are trying to put more of a stamp on higher education,” says Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschick. “[Gov. Perry] has been pushing very hard for low tuition, for getting students in and out as soon as possible. He has stresses research only if it brings in grants – things like that. ”
Listen to the interview between Scott Jaschick and KUT’s David Brown below.
UT Austin Law School Foundation Raises Questions
At the end of 2011, UT Austin’s Law School got into some hot water because its dean has taken a $500,000 dollar forgivable loan. The dean, Larry Sager, was forced to step down and a review is conducted into the loan program. The report comes back – but the Board of Regents would later commission another one.
“Some people saw that as a way to say that President Powers should’ve been more on top of it," Willeford says.
But Powers has powerful friends –many of whom came to his defense. During the most recent legislative session, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst said the affair amounted to an assault on Powers’ character.
“This man deserves better treatment then what he’s getting. I am really upset about this," he said.
Should Regent Hall be Impeached?
The controversy surrounding the law school foundation led Regent Wallace Hall to request records from UT – a lot of them. The sweeping record requests led lawmakers to accuse Hall of starting a “witch hunt” against Powers. But Tom Lindsay with the Texas Public Policy Foundation questions that accusation.
"Every time we’ve had a scandal the question has been, ‘Where was the board?’ Now you have a regent who is asking tough questions. … But instead of being praised for exercising his fiduciary role, we see him being brought up for impeachment."
Those public record requests have caused many to question whether or not Hall has overstepped his role as a regent – and whether or not he deserves to be impeached. A panel of state lawmakers is currently investigating that possibility.
But what exactly is Hall’s role – or any regent’s role, for that matter?
A Regent's Role
“A lot of decisions are developed with a president or chancellor,” says Richard Novak, a senior fellow with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. He says a regents’ role is to set policy and advocate for the university.
“The board needs to respect the chancellor serving as the key reporting person in the hierarchy, who is the link to presidents.”
In the University of Texas System, the chancellor is Francisco Cigarroa. He declined to comment for this article.
Novak says Hall seems to have broken from the pack.
“I don’t like the idea of an individual board member going outside chain of command. Those are decisions that are so disruptive to good governance. … Quite frankly, the chair needed to have a conversation with Mr. Hall and say ‘Look, this is not advancing the UT system or UT Austin campus."
Next week, the investigation into Hall continues in the legislature. Chancellor Cigarroa is expected to testify, but it’s unclear whether the committee will call on Hall to testify as well. Depending on what happens with Thursday's discussion of President Bill Powers’ job at UT Austin, the script for next week’s committee hearing could be drastically rewritten.