Leadership & Governance

In ‘July 4 Coup’ at U. of Texas, Flagship’s Chief Is Asked to Resign

July 06, 2014

Tensions at the University of Texas are boiling after reports that the system’s chancellor has told the president of the flagship campus, William C. Powers Jr., to resign or risk being fired this week.

Faculty members are planning an emergency meeting for Wednesday, the day before the system’s Board of Regents is scheduled to meet and could vote on Mr. Powers’s dismissal. Students, employees, and alumni took to social media over the weekend to rally support for the president, and a legislative panel that is pursuing impeachment proceedings against one of his fiercest critics reiterated warnings to the regents not to fire him.

Well-placed sources confirmed news-media reports that the chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, told Mr. Powers last week to submit his resignation by Friday, July 4, effective October 31. Mr. Powers, who enjoys strong support from the faculty but has frequently butted heads with a faction of the regents who are closely aligned with Gov. Rick Perry, reportedly refused but said he would be open to leaving if he could stay on through June 2015, after the legislative session and academic year have ended.

Neither the chancellor nor the president is talking publicly, and no reason has been given for the apparent ultimatum. Speculation has been swirling, however, about whether the attempted ouster may have been orchestrated or at least supported by the governor, a Republican who is leaving office at the end of the year. An October 31 exit date for Mr. Powers would give Governor Perry, who appointed all of the university’s regents, time to influence the naming of a successor. Mr. Powers has resisted some initiatives, supported by Mr. Perry, that were aimed at measuring faculty productivity and making universities more responsive to student "consumers."

Others suggest that it has more to do with an investigation into admissions practices at the University of Texas system following reports that some lawmakers, writing on behalf of constituents and relatives, improperly influenced the process.

‘Astounded and Dismayed’

Reports of the potential firing of Mr. Powers, who serves as chairman of the Association of American Universities, a prestigious group of top research institutions, drew a sharp rebuke from leaders of the flagship’s Faculty Council. Council members, who plan to meet on Wednesday, are "astounded and dismayed about this ‘July 4 Coup,’" which came during a summer holiday weekend when students and faculty members were away, Andrea C. Gore, the council’s chair-elect, said in a written statement.

"The Faculty Council executive committee has consistently given unanimous support to President Powers, who has served the university, often under adverse political pressure, with enormous distinction," wrote Ms. Gore, who is also a professor of pharmacology and toxicology. "This coup is not only unmerited, unjustified, and unacceptable," she wrote. "It sets an extremely dangerous precedent for higher-education institutions around the country."

Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, agreed.

"I thought the State of Texas had in the past two years reached the outer limit of political intrusion into academic institutions, but apparently not," he wrote on Sunday in an email to The Chronicle. "Now a board appointed by a lame-duck governor, and, astonishingly, a lame-duck chancellor, are threatening to oust a highly accomplished and popular president of Texas’ flagship university, and a national leader in higher education."

The lengthy battle, he said, "has been extremely corrosive, and clearly damages one of the nation’s great research universities. Believe me, faculty members and researchers and graduate students across the country know what is transpiring in Texas: the complete politicization of higher education. This latest fiasco makes a bad situation much worse."

In February the chancellor, Dr. Cigarroa, announced his decision to resign when a successor could be named, and to return to the university’s Health Science Center at San Antonio as head of pediatric transplant surgery.

He has made no secret of the fact that his relations with Mr. Powers have been strained. In December, just months before announcing his own resignation, Dr. Cigarroa delivered a stern public lecture to the president, saying he believed he should stay on, but only if he continued working to improve communications with system officials.

Questions About Admissions

But then in June the chancellor ordered an outside investigation of admissions practices at the system following allegations of favoritism toward relatives and constituents of some state lawmakers. That’s one of the areas that Mr. Powers’s fiercest critic on the board, Wallace L. Hall Jr., has been hammering away at by digging through dozens of boxes of documents he obtained through open-records requests to the University of Texas.

Mr. Hall’s critics have accused him of pursuing a witch hunt against Mr. Powers. A special committee of the Texas House of Representatives agreed that he had overstepped his duties as a regent, and is drafting articles of impeachment against Mr. Hall. Mr. Hall has denied wrongdoing and has declined to comment to the committee or respond to interview requests.

While all this was playing out, the House committee asked the regents last summer not to fire Mr. Powers. A co-chair of the committee, State Rep. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, said on Sunday that she was disappointed by the "selective memory" of the regents.

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of former regents, top-level administrators, and alumni of the university, called on the chancellor to allow Mr. Powers to continue leading the university. "Upheaval and disruption benefit no one," its statement said.

A letter on Sunday from the university flagship’s alumni group, the Texas Exes, said that a forced resignation or firing "would be a travesty for UT. It would cause further tension with legislators regarding the UT system, would compound unrest among faculty, students, and alumni, and invoke serious harm to the institution’s reputation in the national spotlight."

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a longtime chair of the Texas Senate’s Higher Education Committee and member of a legislative oversight committee, issued a statement on Sunday outlining Mr. Powers’s contributions.

"Despite this stellar record of accomplishment­—or perhaps because of it—persons advancing an ideological, anti-higher-education agenda want nothing more than to see Powers fired," she wrote.