UT leadership shuffle: Powers may make ‘graceful’ 2015 exit

Janet Lorin and Darrell Preston (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. DALLAS — A years-long feud between the president of the University of Texas’s flagship campus at Austin and the chancellor of the nine-school system could lead to the president’s ouster this week.

Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s demand that Bill Powers, who has served as Austin’s leader for eight years, resign will be taken up Thursday by the UT System Board of Regents, according to an agenda posted on the board’s website.

The dispute dates back to Gov. Rick Perry’s, R, call three years ago to make the state’s public higher education system more accountable and to cut costs. The battle between Powers, 68, and the board stemmed from criticism by some regents that in an attempt to be a major research institution, the school failed to focus on teaching the most students at an affordable cost. Now, alumni led by former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R, have organized protests to save Powers’s job.

“A forced resignation or firing would be a travesty for UT,” according to a letter sent over the weekend by Hutchison and Charles Matthews, chairman of the Texas Exes alumni group. “It would cause further tension with legislators regarding UT System, would compound unrest among faculty, students, and alumni, and invoke serious harm to the institution’s reputation in the national spotlight.”

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An online petition supporting Powers has drawn more than 9,000 signatures, including from faculty members. The Austin campus has more than 50,000 students, while the total system has about 213,000.

The feud and campaign from alumni is reminiscent of the 2012 fight over the leadership of another high-profile public institution, the University of Virginia. After a groundswell of support from faculty, students, and alumni, Virginia’s Teresa Sullivan was reinstated as president a few weeks after she was ousted by the board, whose leader wanted a president who would push for steeper cost cutting and move toward online learning.

In 2011 Perry called for state universities in Texas to offer degrees for $10,000. Many academics, including Powers, resisted the focus on cutting expenses. Since then, Powers and the regents have increasingly been in disagreement about the changes Perry called for and some regents supported.

Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Perry, declined to comment and referred questions to the chancellor’s office.

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The regents took no action in December on a proposal to oust Powers. The fight at Austin escalated after Cigarroa asked the president on July 2 to step down or be fired at this week’s board meeting. In a letter to Cigarroa on July 4, Powers said he wouldn’t resign.

“I have accomplished much of what I set out to do as president of this great university, including a strong finish on our $3 billion capital campaign and keeping my commitments to our generous donors,” Powers said. “But my work is not finished.”

Officials from UT Austin have declined to comment.

Before becoming president of the Austin campus in 2006, Powers served as dean of the law school and taught there since 1977. Powers is also serving a year term as chairman of the Association of American Universities, which represents major research schools in the U.S.

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AAU’s president, Hunter Rawlings, said the lengthy battle in Austin has been “corrosive” and “damaging.”

“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,” Rawlings, a former president of Cornell University, said in an e-mailed statement.

“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.”

Cigarroa, a surgeon, announced in February that he would step down as chancellor when a successor is named. He said he would then return to practicing medicine.