President Powers’ job safe after controversy

Liz Farmer

The UT-Austin president and UT System chancellor’s jobs are safe, according to a statement made by the UT System Board of Regents chair during a Monday forum designed to address questions regarding a recent research controversy.

The state Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency met with current and former chairs of the state university systems for its second meeting on Monday. The committee formed this spring following controversy surrounding a conservative think tank’s seven solutions to higher education.

The think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has suggested that public universities measure teaching efficiency more systematically and has published policy statements that support splitting research and teaching budgets in order to place more scrutiny on research funding. Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, committee co-chair, said it does not seem like the board has policy independence separate from the think tank.

“My concern is that they were the only one who had such an influence and that they hijacked the higher education agenda,” Zaffirini said.

Zaffirini said there were rumors about interest in firing UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

“They are both very much respected and loved by members of the Legislature,” Zaffirini said.

Zaffirini said she had been told the university presidents had been muzzled by the Board of Regents.

“This session I was absolutely shocked at the limited communication from regents and presidents about the impact in reductions in funding,” Zaffirini said. “The directive was don’t whine, don’t complain and that they could deal with those reductions in funding.”

UT System Board of Regents chair Gene Powell said the rumors are unfounded.

Powell said he did not know of any muzzling and only mentioned how the chancellor should approach the Legislature.

“I said I would like for the chancellor to present these problems in a positive light,” Powell said.

She said chairs should not micromanage the universities they serve.

When asked about the controversy, Powell said the discussion allowed for the UT System chancellor’s Framework for Excellence action plan.

“There were a lot of people looking at what was happening and [jumping] to conclusions,” Powell said. “What we really care about is, what was the end result?”

Zaffirini said she has seen many confidential emails of UT System regents that concern her, and she did not think any of them should be marked confidential.

Powell said Rick O’Donnell, a former researcher for the Texas Public Policy Foundation who was fired amid research controversy, was the most qualified to be hired as a special advisor to the Board of Regents.

“I would say that it was a mistake on my part,” Powell said. “I got very good reports from those people and it turned out t not work.”

Powell said he did not want to reveal who gave him the recommendation about O’Donnell because they had not given him permission to identify them.

“They sure had an impact based on their recommendation,” Zaffirini said. “It falls under the charge of not only governance, but of transparency.”