When we met with UT President William Powers Jr. last fall, he stressed that his focus in the upcoming legislative session would be “budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts.” We never imagined that in the middle of a legislative session that will have enormous implications for Texas higher education, internal politics within the UT System would complicate his ability to protect UT funding.
And we definitely never fathomed that only five years into a presidency marked by higher rankings and successful efforts to recruit renowned professors, Powers’ job could possibly be in jeopardy.
On Tuesday, the Texas Exes alumni organization issued a resolution in support of Powers and his belief that the University should champion academic research as a means to educate students and enhance its academic reputation. While Exes president Richard Leshin acknowledged that he lacks firsthand knowledge of Powers’ job security, he said his sources are “very good” and he certainly had enough faith in them to email the Powers resolution to more than 200,000 alumni.
Adding to speculation, Powers sent a rare campus-wide email Tuesday defending his work at UT and describing his vision for a 21st century research university. The email did not directly address recent controversies about the Board of Regents or rumors about his job security. However, the email’s timing — one day after the Exes’ resolution — and subject matter — defending academic research while powerful figures devalue it paints a bleak picture.
If Powers’ position is in danger, it is likely because of his opposition to reforms supported by a number of influential conservatives, the most prominent of whom is Gov. Rick Perry. Unlike the Board of Regents and Higher Education Coordinating Board, Powers is neither a Perry appointee nor is he beholden to him. Perry is very cavalier about giving appointments to political allies and big donors in return for their loyalty, so it’s no surprise that while UT administrators, students and alumni have unequivocally voiced their support for academic research, the regents and the coordinating board are still trying to force the governor’s agenda upon UT.
Perry is notorious for eliminating defectors. Two years ago, several Texas Tech regents were pressured to resign because they supported Kay Bailey Hutchinson in her primary campaign against Perry. He also has a reputation for isolating himself from the possibility of criticism or scrutiny. During his last campaign, Perry refused to meet with newspaper editorial boards or debate his opponent Bill White.
Clearly, the governor expects everybody to play for Team Perry, and he’s certainly not accustomed to the resistance Powers and other Longhorns have mounted. Unfortunately, Perry holds most of the cards. In the UT System, presidents are appointed by the Board of Regents, and the Board of Regents is appointed by the governor. One would hope the regents would consider the opinions of the massive coalition of UT students and alumni that formed in response to reform efforts, but at the end of the day the regents know where their bread is buttered.
With this in mind, we applaud Powers for protecting the University’s academic reputation, even when it pits him against those with the power to remove him from office.
We’ve always had some qualms with Powers’ administration, particularly on issues such as domestic partner benefits and gender equity. But when the core of UT’s academic reputation and quality is under attack, we’re glad he’s on our side.