Texas regents elect Foster as chair

JIM VERTUNO, Associated Press


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — University of Texas regents on Thursday elected Paul Foster of El Paso as the board’s new chairman after two years under Gene Powell, whose term was marked by friction with state lawmakers and creation of a new university in South Texas.

The selection of Foster, who had served as vice chairman, is also seen by allies of popular Austin campus President Bill Powers as a chance to reduce tension between the board and state lawmakers over efforts by some members to force Powers out.

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“I’m very supportive of (Powers). He’s our president,” Foster said.

A Baylor graduate, Foster is executive chairman of Western Refining Inc. and was first appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Perry in 2007. He was elected chairman by a unanimous vote of the 9-member board and said he’s “ready to get to work.” Powell remains on the board as a vice chairman and called his tenure as chairman an “outstanding” part of his life.

Powell, a San Antonio businessman and investor who was appointed by Perry in 2009, has been chairman since 2011 and has been in the middle of Perry’s push for changes in higher education, including creation of $10,000 degree. Many of those ideas have been met with fierce resistance from academics and some lawmakers.

Powell’s term as chairman immediately sparked controversy when he created a new $200,000 advisory job and filled it with a Perry ally who had questioned the value of research in higher education.

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Powell also was criticized for comparing undergraduate degrees at some system schools to older-model cars as opposed to the “Cadillac” degree offered by the Austin flagship, a comment he later said he regretted making. Powell also has been at the helm as lawmakers have publicly clashed with the board over Powers and what some legislators have called a “witch hunt” by some regents to oust him.

However, House lawmakers also have begun an impeachment investigation against regent Wallace Hall, one of Powers’ chief critics

“I hope that process moves quickly. I hope we can put it all behind us,” Foster said, adding he planned to talk frequently with lawmakers and try to smooth out tense relationships.

Regent Steven Hicks, who has supported Powers, said he considered Foster a “uniter” who would be able to heal fractures in the board.

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Foster, who was confirmed by the state Senate in May for his second six-year term, told lawmakers he considered Powers “difficult” and a “challenge” to work with, but also told lawmakers before their vote that he would likely support Powell if asked.

Prior to the vote on board officers, the regents met in private for their annual job performance evaluations of Powers and the other system campus presidents. Powers is on vacation and did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

Regent Steven Hicks, who has supported Powers, said he considered Foster a “uniter” who would be able to heal fractures in the board.

“My hope the next couple of years is, get past some of that (friction) and move forward together,” Hicks said.

The selection also drew praise from the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a high-profile, nonprofit group of state business and political leaders formed in response to a study that argued that UT-Austin could get by with one-third its current faculty if they taught more.

“We hope that his leadership will enjoy a collaborative relationship between the system and its 15 institutions. The stakes for Texas are too high to proceed otherwise,” according to a statement issued by the group.

Powell’s tenure as chairman was notable of the recent creation of a new university and medical school in South Texas and a medical school in Austin. The South Texas project has been hailed a major development for one of the poorest and fastest-growing regions of the country.

Regents voted in December 2012 and lawmakers approved merging Texas-Pan American in Edinburg and Texas-Brownsville and spend $100 million to accelerate plans for a medical school. Supporters say the new university, informally dubbed the University for the Americas, and its medical school, are critically needed to serve the education and health care needs in the region along the Texas-Mexico border.