Faculty question effect of regent action on UT’s ability to retain and hire administrators

Jordan Rudner

Despite a national unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, the University of Texas is hiring.

In the last two years, several administrators have stepped down or left for various reasons, including deans of law, natural sciences, social work, undergraduate studies and graduate schools.

Last week, Gretchen Ritter, vice provost for undergraduate education and faculty governance, announced she will be leaving the University for a deanship at Cornell University, while Steven Leslie, executive vice president and provost, announced he will be returning to teaching and research in the College of Pharmacy in February. 

At a Faculty Council meeting last month, UT President William Powers Jr. said filling at least one of those seats, the provost position, will be more complicated than usual, largely as a result of tensions between the University and the UT System Board of Regents

“We’re in a tricky situation,” Powers said.

Jeremi Suri, history and public affairs professor, said these departures and recruitment complications reflect a larger trend, as tensions surrounding the regents could make other options for faculty members and administrators more attractive. 

Suri, who joined the UT faculty in 2011, said he left his previous position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in part because of political controversy. He said the situation here is playing out in a similar, if not identical, fashion, and might have serious implications for the University’s recruitment efforts in the future.

“One difference — and it is a big difference — is that UT is far better run and has much more of an emphasis on maintaining excellence,” Suri said. “There is also stronger support from alumni across the state. But there are people who see the University as a sitting duck, as something they can attack to earn political points because they look tough … and that makes it harder to retain people and harder to bring in the best minds.” 

Alan Friedman, English professor and a former Faculty Council chairman who has worked at the University since 1964, said he also feels the board’s actions have an impact on faculty and administrative decision-making.

“There is a good deal of talk about what is happening on campus as a result of the regents’ actions, and some if it does factor into faculty members who are not staying or who are not coming,” Friedman said. “I think a lot of faculty members feel the campus is under siege from the very people who are appointed to protect and support the quality of the educational experience on this campus.” 

Friedman cited the regents’ recent decision to tighten conflict of interest policies as an example of a point of tension.

“A lot of time is being wasted on these new requirements,” Friedman said. “Absolutely no justification was offered with regard to why the policies are being imposed on us, and there have been no studies done suggesting this will improve the situation on campus. We’re wasting time.”

Though some think the rate of administrative departure is a trend, others attribute it to natural turnover. Leslie, who will step down Aug. 31, said turnover in faculty and administrative roles is something he dealt with every year as provost and is not unnatural.

“I’ll admit these are difficult times right now, but we’ve recruited some of the top talent in the nation as leaders and deans and in other important posts,” Leslie said. “Under any circumstances, people who love higher education and want to lead will come here.”