• October 31, 2014

Texas Showdown Is Averted, With President to Stay On for a Year

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Marsha Miller, U. of Texas at Austin

William C. Powers Jr. speaks to a faculty group on Wednesday after the announcement that he would stay on as president of the U. of Texas at Austin until June 2015. He declined to answer reporters' questions about when or how he learned of the chancellor’s decision to accept his terms for leaving, or what might have led to the reversal.

The searing spotlight that has been shining on the University of Texas cooled slightly on Wednesday, when the system’s chancellor, in a surprising about-face, announced that he would allow the flagship’s president, William C. Powers Jr., to stay on another year.

The move pre-empted what had promised to be a bitterly divisive meeting of the system’s Board of Regents on Thursday, when the board had been expected to fire Mr. Powers.

Faculty members who had gathered in a special meeting on Wednesday to protest the president’s apparently imminent ouster gasped and cheered when they learned that the chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, had backed down, agreeing to let the president leave on his own terms, at the end of the next academic year.

Last week Dr. Cigarroa demanded that Mr. Powers agree to leave by October 31, citing a breakdown in trust and communication, or face dismissal by the board at its meeting this week. The president refused, setting the stage for a Texas-size showdown on Thursday.

The chancellor has not commented on what may have changed his thinking, but he surely felt intensifying pushback from donors, lawmakers, powerful alumni, and editorial writers across the state and nation, who warned that recruiting, fund raising, and the university’s reputation would suffer if he followed through on his threat.

While praising Mr. Powers as "an admired leader," Dr. Cigarroa said it was time for a "fresh start."

"While ultimately productive, the past years have not been without struggle and, at times, conflict and controversy," Dr. Cigarroa wrote. "There was no single incident that prompted my decision to ask President Powers for his resignation last week, but a long history of issues with communication, responsiveness, and a willingness to collaborate."

The chancellor, who is authorized to accept the resignation without a vote by the Board of Regents, will expand on his statement at the regents’ meeting on Thursday. Given the turn of events, it’s unlikely that Dr. Cigarroa will delve into the issues that have created the most friction between the president and members of the board most closely aligned with Gov. Rick Perry, whose views about higher education clash with those of the president.

Turmoil in Texas

 

Those issues include allegations of favoritism in admissions toward applicants with connections to state lawmakers and the president’s resistance to one regent’s particularly zealous open-records requests.

That regent, Wallace L. Hall Jr., faces possible impeachment for overstepping his authority while trying to uncover evidence of wrongdoing at the flagship.

‘A Great Day’

Ten minutes after Wednesday’s faculty meeting was adjourned, Mr. Powers, wearing a navy blazer, gray slacks, and white turtleneck, entered the room to hugs and applause and spoke briefly with reporters. He thanked faculty members, students, and others for their support, a message he reiterated in a statement released Wednesday evening.

"This is a great day for the university and a great day for the university system," the president told reporters. He declined to answer questions about when or how he had learned of the chancellor’s decision to accept his terms for leaving, or what might have led to the reversal.

Mr. Powers also thanked Dr. Cigarroa and Paul L. Foster, chairman of the Board of Regents, for helping him resolve the matter in a way that benefited the university.

"We’ve worked really hard at all this and continued to put the interests of the University of Texas at the forefront," he said.

Mr. Powers said he would step down by June 2, 2015, then take time off and probably teach at the law school. "It has been the highest honor and blessing of my life being here, leading the University of Texas. But it’s the right time, for me and my family," he said.

Martha F. Hilley, a professor of music and a 32-year veteran of the university, said she was "shocked" and thrilled by the chancellor’s decision to allow Mr. Powers to stay on another year. "I thought everyone was going to dig their heels in," she said after the abbreviated faculty meeting. "But in the end, everyone gave a little. The winner is the University of Texas."

Alan W. Friedman, a professor of English and former chair of the flagship’s Faculty Senate, as well as the Faculty Council, drew a standing ovation after giving an impassioned speech defending Mr. Powers.

"The assaults on President Powers represent an attack on everything that makes this institution great," Mr. Friedman said, including academic freedom and "quality teaching that cannot be reduced to numbers on a chart."

Just after his remarks, the university’s provost, Gregory L. Fenves, announced that the president would be staying on. The room erupted in cheers, and the Faculty Council took a quick, unanimous vote of confidence in Mr. Powers and adjourned the meeting.

Support From Students and Alumni

Current and former student leaders on the flagship campus have also been active this week in rallying support for the president with a flurry of emails to students, letters to regents, and plans (now canceled) to march together to the board meeting on Thursday.

By late Wednesday, more than 14,000 people had signed an online petition protesting what it called a "politically motivated campaign to attack and discredit our president."

In a letter to the regents and Chancellor Cigarroa this week, 18 current and former student-government leaders said Mr. Powers had "sought student input on the full range of issues—from tuition and budgetary planning to curricular reform and campus safety."

R. Gordon Appleman, a prominent Fort Worth lawyer, was among those to air his grievances with Dr. Cigarroa after last week’s ultimatum to Mr. Powers.

"I sent him an email. I told him I was disappointed in his decision," said Mr. Appleman, founder of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of more than 200 former regents, chancellors, presidents, and politicians who have been a critical base of Mr. Powers’s support.

The chancellor "received hundreds or thousands of emails just like mine," Mr. Appleman said, "so I doubt if mine made any material impact. But I was happy to add it because I care."

The Texas Coalition said it was pleased that "leaders were able to come together and put the interests of our great university first by allowing a thoughtful, responsible, and orderly transition of leadership."

Also praising the decision were two prominent leaders of the independent alumni group the Texas Exes. The group’s president, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, frequently criticized Governor Perry’s higher-education record in her unsuccessful bid to unseat him four years ago.

In a statement signed with Charles W. Matthews, the alumni group’s chair, she praised the chancellor and president for rising above their personal interests to do what was right for the university. "Allowing President Powers to finish what he has started will ensure a successful year for UT and an orderly transition through the next legislative session," the statement read.

Some, however, accused the chancellor of caving in to political pressure and giving in too easily to Mr. Powers.

"Powers’ decision to resign is the right decision, but it comes too late," Anne C. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

"When boards and presidents aren’t working together, it is time for a new leader. It would have been better for Texans and the university had Powers stepped down immediately and acknowledged the breakdown in communications and trust critical to a productive partnership."

A spokesman for the governor said he had no comment on the resignation, which was "a matter for the chancellor and the Board of Regents."

Jack Stripling contributed to this article.

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