Leadership & Governance

As Fight Over U. of Texas President Comes to a Head, Everyone Wonders, Why Now?

Erich Schlegel, Getty Images

With a Board of Regents vote looming on Thursday, the most supporters of William C. Powers Jr. can hope for is to delay his departure, not avoid it.
July 08, 2014

As supporters of the University of Texas at Austin’s president, William C. Powers Jr., lined up to fight efforts to oust him this week, the best they can hope for is to allow him to leave on his own terms—at the end of the next academic year, instead of being forced out in October or even earlier.

But that hasn’t stopped them from mounting a fierce lobby to block the Board of Regents from firing Mr. Powers during a scheduled meeting on Thursday.

Mr. Powers refused to submit his resignation to the system’s departing chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, according to a timetable the chancellor ordered last week. Leaving by October 31 would be "enormously disruptive to many stakeholders and would cast the university and our state in a highly unfavorable light," the embattled president wrote in a July 4 letter to Dr. Cigarroa. Leaving next June, at the end of the legislative session and academic year, Mr. Powers wrote, would allow "a graceful, rather than abrupt departure."

Late Monday evening, Dr. Cigarroa broke his silence on the reasons for asking the president to resign.

"The relationship between President Bill Powers, the Board of Regents, and the Office of the Chancellor has been strained to the point of becoming fractured for several years," he said in a written statement. "This was the case from my first day as chancellor and even preceded my arrival."

The president, he said, wanted to stay on until a capital campaign ended and his term as chair of the Association of American Universities was up. The October 31 departure date the chancellor suggested, he said, had accommodated that request, but the president refused to go along with it.

On Thursday, Dr. Cigarroa said, he will talk to the regents and let them "deliberate on how to move forward."

A spokesman for the president said he had no comment on the chancellor’s statement, which came at a time of intense speculation about what had prompted the bid to oust him. Sources interviewed on Monday suggested it could have been a combination of the following:

  • A desire to allow Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, whose term ends on December 31, to influence the selection of a new president. Mr. Perry, a Republican who has been at odds with Mr. Powers for years, has appointed every member of the university’s Board of Regents, and his most recent appointees have been the most critical of Mr. Powers.
  • Trouble finding a new chancellor who is willing to step into the fray when tensions between Mr. Powers and system administrators are well known.
  • Questions about whether there might be a "smoking gun" in new information Dr. Cigarroa said had come to light about a controversy over University of Texas admissions.

In his statement on Monday night, the chancellor did his best to lay all three theories to rest, and to quell the mounting furor his action had caused.

"In recent days I have been accused of acting at the direction of the governor or some members of the Board of Regents in this decision and of taking steps that will ultimately damage UT Austin. Nothing could be further from the truth," he wrote. "I have supported Bill Powers consistently for the last five years, but this latest decision originates with the UT System’s Office of Academic Affairs and my office and is based on a breakdown of communication, collegiality, trust, and a willingness to work together for the good of the university."

Critics of the chancellor’s move to dismiss the president have questioned how the university will be able to recruit a replacement for Mr. Powers if he is fired over the objections of faculty members, students, and alumni. But Mr. Powers’s post isn’t the only big vacancy facing the university. The Board of Regents has been reaching out to candidates to replace Dr. Cigarroa, and a well-placed source told The Chronicle on Monday that a few leading candidates for chancellor have balked as long as the Powers controversy is still brewing.

The regents, the source said, have reportedly instructed Dr. Cigarroa to fire Mr. Powers so they will have an easier time finding a new chancellor. And while Dr. Cigarroa may be on his way out, he’ll continue to report to the same Board of Regents in his new position as head of pediatric transplant surgery at the university’s Health Science Center at San Antonio.

At Loggerheads

Mr. Powers has earned the praise of key lawmakers, faculty members, students, powerful alumni, and wealthy donors, many of whom are expected to turn out on Thursday for what is likely to be a heated board meeting. But the president’s support has been tepid at best among many of the very people who ultimately control his fate.

"Powers has had trouble with each chancellor he’s dealt with and virtually every board and all the chairmen," said Charles Miller, whose tenure as chairman of the Board of Regents predated Mr. Powers’s presidency. "And I know that from what they’ve told me personally."

Mr. Miller, who is in frequent contact with Dr. Cigarroa, said that the president had struggled to earn the trust of most of the board’s nine voting members. The two exceptions may be R. Steven Hicks, the board’s vice chairman and a private investor, and Robert L. Stillwell, a retired lawyer who worked with T. Boone Pickens, the legendary Texas oilman.

A simple majority of the board can dismiss the president, so two votes will not be sufficient to save Mr. Powers’s job. The board’s student member does not have a vote.

Mr. Powers has long been at loggerheads with members of the board, but it is unclear whether some catalytic event prompted a renewed push for his ouster.

It has not gone unnoticed in Texas, however, that talk of the president’s dismissal surfaced just a few weeks after Dr. Cigarroa announced that the system would seek an external investigation of admissions practices at Austin, where lawmakers have been accused of trying to influence the process for well-connected applicants.

In May system officials released the findings of an internal inquiry that concluded that there was no evidence of systemic favoritism for applicants who had received letters of recommendation from lawmakers. At the same time, however, the review cited "sufficient reason for concern" because applicants with the backing of lawmakers had been admitted at higher rates than those without such powerful supporters.

New Evidence on Admissions

Until last month, the chancellor and Paul L. Foster, the board’s chairman, had expressed no appetite for a more-rigorous review of admissions at Austin. So what changed?

A person familiar with the renewed probe, who requested anonymity in order to discuss an investigation in progress, said that several individuals with "personal knowledge" of Austin’s admissions practices had brought forward new information to Dr. Cigarroa, Mr. Foster, and Daniel H. Sharphorn, the system’s general counsel and vice chancellor.

The previous inquiry found that there was no evidence of a systemic admissions problem, quid pro quos, or overt pressure on admissions officials. New information, the source said, "contradicted one or more of those conclusions."

The new evidence, which the source would not describe in detail, has contributed to regents’ concerns about Mr. Powers’s forthrightness and accountability.

"This admissions deal, it’s not the reason," the source said. "But it is certainly a big piece."

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman for the university system, confirmed on Monday that Dr. Cigarroa "recently became aware of new information that raised questions about internal processes regarding admissions at UT Austin, and that is what prompted the call for an external review."

Neither Dr. Cigarroa nor Mr. Powers have been made available for interviews.

‘Politically Motivated Campaign’

The admissions controversy has been of particular interest to Wallace L. Hall Jr., a regent who has flooded the flagship campus with public-records requests in search of evidence of sweetheart deals or coverups.

A House panel recently concluded that Mr. Hall had abused his power in what amounts to a witch hunt, and the regent now faces possible impeachment.

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition decrying a "politically motivated campaign to attack and discredit" Mr. Powers. "I don’t know of anyone else who could get that kind of support," Horacio R. Villarreal III, a former student-body president on the Austin campus, said on Monday.

"We’re confused as to why this is even an issue," he said. "He’s done amazing things for the university."

Meanwhile, faculty members at Austin have been in touch with their counterparts at the University of Virginia, where furious protests from professors, students, and alumni helped get Teresa A. Sullivan reinstated as president in June 2012, two weeks after she was pressured to resign.

"I’m interested in knowing what strategies the UVa faculty used to form a united front that was so effective in her reappointment," said Andrea C. Gore, chair-elect of the UT flagship’s Faculty Council.