• November 21, 2014

In the Turmoil at the U. of Texas at Austin, 4 Big Personalities

The possible dismissal of William C. Powers Jr., president of the University of Texas at Austin, has pitted him against the system’s chancellor, the governor, and a prominent regent. But the call for Mr. Powers’s resignation isn’t so out of the ordinary in light of the politics of his relationship with state lawmakers, other university administrators, and the system’s Board of Regents. Here are the big players in the debate and their changing relationships with one another:

William C. Powers Jr., president of UT-Austin

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Mr. Powers has drawn strong support from Austin faculty members, who have rallied online to keep him in office. Since his appointment as president, in 2006, he has frequently disagreed with the system’s regents. Mr. Powers was previously dean of the UT law school, on the Austin campus, and is now chairman of the Association of American Universities, a group of top research institutions. As of Monday afternoon, Mr. Powers had asked Francisco G. Cigarroa, the system’s chancellor, if he could stay in his position until June 2015, after the coming legislative session and academic year end, in order to avoid an abrupt resignation.

Just three years ago, Mr. Powers asked his own successor as dean of the law school, Lawrence G. Sager, to resign after noticing a "divided" faculty at the law school. Tensions grew after the release of public documents that showed complaints of gender inequality at the law school and a "forgivable loan" made to Mr. Sager by a private foundation to support faculty salaries. Dr. Cigarroa began a review of how money had flowed from the foundation to the law school, and Mr. Powers asserted he was not aware of the loan to the former dean.

Despite mounting tensions with regents fueled in part by Mr. Powers’s public dissatisfaction with their decision to freeze tuition, he was honored by state lawmakers for his accomplishments and years of service, in 2013. (Photo: U. of Texas at Austin)

Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT System

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Dr. Cigarroa, a pediatric surgeon, said in December that he believed the president should stay in his position if he improved communication with system officials. But in June he called for an external investigation into whether the Austin campus, under Mr. Powers, was giving an admissions edge to applicants who were connected to state lawmakers. Neither Mr. Powers nor Dr. Cigarroa has spoken publicly about whether the investigation is related to Dr. Cigarroa’s asking Mr. Powers to resign.

Dr. Cigarroa himself is on his way out after having announced his own resignation, in February, to be the head of pediatric surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. He is expecting to stay on as chancellor, however, until a replacement is found.

But he’s had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Mr. Powers. After the president pressured Mr. Sager to resign, in 2011, the regents and Dr. Cigarroa both praised him. In June of that year, Dr. Cigarroa’s proposal for "advancing excellence" in higher education was supported by many people, including Mr. Powers, who said the plan was "in full harmony" with UT-Austin’s plans for faculty evaluations. Dr. Cigarroa was forced to defend Mr. Powers a year later, when rumors circulated that the university system was looking to fire him after he publicly disapproved of the regents’ rejection of his proposed tuition increase. (Photo: U. of Texas)

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Republican

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Governor Perry has appointed all of the university board’s nine voting regents. And if Mr. Powers resigns or is ousted soon, many speculate, then Mr. Perry would have time to influence the choice of the next UT-Austin president before he leaves office himself, at the end of the year. Supporters of Mr. Powers have criticized Mr. Perry’s appointees, many of whom have a tense relationship with Mr. Powers, for micromanaging the Austin campus, including asking administrators to keep emails and questioning the organization of the campus’s fund-raising department.

Mr. Perry’s relationship with the UT-Austin campus was also strained when the governor endorsed the "Seven Breakthrough Solutions," a set of proposals put forth by a conservative think tank in 2011. The ideas, which included separating research and teaching budgets as well as basing faculty raises on student evaluations, was resisted by the university. Mr. Perry again disagreed with Mr. Powers when the governor discouraged his proposed tuition increase, which regents ultimately rejected. (Photo: Texas Governor's Office)

Wallace L. Hall Jr., UT regent

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Mr. Hall is a university regent who is facing impeachment after critics say he overstepped his authority by demanding university documents through public-records requests as part of a personal investigation into admissions and other practices on the Austin campus. Fellow regents have characterized his actions as a "witch hunt" against Mr. Powers and an abuse of his position. Impeaching him is under discussion in the Texas House of Representatives. It’s not the first time Mr. Hall has been in hot water. In 2013, The Texas Tribune found that Mr. Hall had failed to report lawsuits in his application to be a regent. Mr. Hall said the omission was unintentional. (Photo: U. of Texas)

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