Supporters rally behind embattled UT president

JIM VERTUNO, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Prominent University of Texas alumni and supporters on Monday rallied behind embattled President Bill Powers, who is under pressure to resign or possibly be fired when school regents meet later this week.

Powers has had a rocky relationship with Gov. Rick Perry and several members of the governor-appointed Board of Regents during his nine years leading the 50,000-student campus. While Powers has survived previous attempts to fire him, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told Powers last week he should announce he will leave by October or risk being fired on Thursday.

Powers countered with an offer to leave in June 2015.

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Billionaire Houston trial lawyer Joe Jamail, one of the school’s top financial donors, said Powers called him after his conversation with Cigarroa and he told Powers not to quit.

“I advised Bill not to resign,” Jamail said. “I think this is disgusting and the wrong thing to do for the University of Texas.”

In a July 4 response letter, Powers told Cigarroa that a June 2015 departure would allow him to steer the university through major curriculum reforms, the startup of a new medical school and help negotiate the university’s share of the next two-year state budget.

“For all these reasons, an abrupt change now would seriously disrupt the progress of UT Austin,” Powers wrote, calling his plan a “graceful rather than abrupt departure.”

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Jodie Jiles, a Houston investment banker and former chairman of the influential Greater Houston Partnership investment group, said he wants Powers to stay on the job and should be allowed to leave on his terms.

Firing Powers would “hurt recruiting of world class teachers, researchers and students, who all would be asking what’s going on down there?” Jiles said.

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which includes Jamail and other donors who have given millions of dollars to the university, issued a statement Monday supporting Powers. The coalition noted that Powers is chairman of the prestigious Association of American Universities, a consortium of public and private research schools.

“We are profoundly disturbed by the recent turn of events,” the coalition said. “It is our sincere hope that the chancellor will veer from this current course and work collaboratively with President Powers on a productive timeline for departure that puts first the best interests of The University of Texas at Austin.”

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A University of Texas System spokeswoman said Cigarroa would discuss Powers’ letter with the regents on Thursday.

Powers has led UT since 2006 and is popular among faculty and students. But his job has been rumored to be in jeopardy several times since 2011 as his vision for higher education clashed — sometimes dramatically — with several regents over issues such as tuition and graduation rates, affirmative action, and the roles of teaching and research in education.

Cigarroa also has acknowledged a “strained” relationship with Powers and tensions have increased in recent weeks. Last month, Cigarroa called for an external investigation into university admissions after allegations that state lawmakers were allowed undue influence over the process.

Cigarroa has already announced plans to step down as chancellor to return to work as a surgeon. His departure date has not yet been set.

Powers has enjoyed strong support at the state Capitol. Lawmakers from both parties rallied behind him in 2013 and tried to limit board powers to fire campus presidents, a measure Perry vetoed.

And a special House panel is drafting articles of impeachment against Regent Wallace Hall over his aggressive and relentless pursuit of records and questions over Powers’ leadership.

The panel, which has been investigating Hall for more than a year, has asked the board several times not to take “adverse employment action” against Powers or other potential witnesses in its probe.