Leadership & Governance

With President’s Job on the Line, U. of Texas Faculty Steps Up Support

July 09, 2014

Warning that a decision to fire the University of Texas at Austin’s president, William C. Powers Jr., would create "chaos" on the flagship campus, faculty members have scheduled an emergency meeting on Wednesday to vote on a resolution supporting the embattled leader.

The meeting of the campus’s Faculty Council comes one day before the university system’s Board of Regents is expected to determine Mr. Powers’s fate. He wants to stay on another year, while the chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, wants him out by October 31. The chancellor is expected to meet with the board in executive session on Thursday before the meeting opens for a potential vote.

The Faculty Council’s executive committee wasn’t appeased by the chancellor’s explanation on Monday for his demand that Mr. Powers immediately agree to his timetable for leaving or risk being fired on Thursday. Dr. Cigarroa said a "fractured" relationship between the president and system officials had necessitated his departure.

The faculty panel disagreed. "We strongly believe that the precipitous, unilateral, and very public termination of this nationally respected university president works against the best interests of the university and will create chaos on the campus," the committee responded in a statement on Tuesday. The panel urged the chancellor to respect Mr. Powers’s request for another academic year to finish important business at the university, including opening a new medical school and changing the undergraduate curriculum in order to improve student-success rates.

"We call on Chancellor Cigarroa to establish a responsible, orderly, and fully transparent transition process that allows for appropriate input from all stakeholders—including faculty, staff, students, and alumni—and that minimizes destabilization and discontent at one of the top public universities in the country," the statement said.

‘Shocked and Appalled’

President Powers has been particularly forceful in defending the flagship’s dual mission as both a research and teaching institution, Elizabeth Cullingford, chair of the English department at Austin, said in an interview on Tuesday.

"He’s very aware that what we’re doing is attempting to give our students an education and not just vocational training," she said. Faculty members who teach small classes and don’t bring in large research grants might look unproductive to those who view universities in strictly business terms, she said, referring to questions raised by some regents about the value of research, particularly in the humanities.

The controversy has complicated efforts to recruit faculty members and administrators, she said. She serves on a committee that is searching for an administrator to head the university’s general libraries. Not knowing whether the president will be around "hasn’t made our job any easier," she said. A colleague serves on a committee interviewing applicants for the university’s new medical school. "He spent all day interviewing yesterday, and all they wanted to know was what was going on" with the chancellor and president, she said.

Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group made up of prominent UT supporters and former leaders, said the controversy had galvanized the campus during what would normally be a quiet summer week.

"We’re shocked and appalled at where we are," she said in an interview on Tuesday. "That in two days a president who has done so much for the university could be fired is an absolutely travesty." Asking Mr. Powers to leave in the middle of an academic year, rather than at the end, as he has requested, doesn’t make sense, she said.

An administrative-staff member at the flagship, who asked not to be identified because he feared it could jeopardize his job, predicted that if Mr. Powers were fired, recruiting would suffer and some faculty members would leave. "We’re subject to poaching even in the best of times," he said, "and having this kind of negative publicity on the front pages of newspapers makes it that much harder."

Student supporters of Mr. Powers have organized a rally before Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting, which is expected to attract an impassioned, overflow crowd.