PAUL J. WEBER, WILL WEISSERT
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers received a cautious endorsement Thursday from his frustrated chancellor that keeps him leading one of the nation’s largest campuses despite two years of turmoil.
University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa acknowledged a “strained” relationship with Powers but expressed hope it would get better. Regents then declined to take any action against Powers, whose job has been rumored to be in jeopardy since 2011.
“There are problems. I’ve addressed these problems. And it is my full expectation that President Powers and I will work toward resolving them and moving ahead,” Cigarroa said.
Powers refused to characterize what happened as an official vote of confidence.
“There was a question about my employment, it got resolved positively,” he said.
Still uncertain is the fate of UT’s other biggest figure: football coach Mack Brown. He declined to say earlier Thursday whether he is about to coach his final game, and Powers said he planned to speak with Brown soon.
Powers has led UT since 2006 and is popular among faculty and students. But his vision for higher education has clashed with some regents — sometimes dramatically — whose ideas are supported by Gov. Rick Perry.
It was the first time regents have put Powers’ job on an agenda — and the timing was interesting.
One of Powers’ chief critics is a UT regent facing possible impeachment by a legislative committee, which had instructed regents not to take any action on campus leadership. The meeting also coincided with questions surrounding Brown, who counts Powers among his bigger supporters.
Fan frustration is mounting after another disappointing season for the Longhorns, who haven’t put together a championship-caliber team since last playing for a national title in 2009. The Longhorns end the season Dec. 30 with the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
“I’m going to focus on this. We’ll discuss football at the appropriate time,” Powers said.
It’s been a bruising two years for Powers in leading the 50,000-student campus. The tension began in 2011 when Perry began pushing a series of higher education reforms that called for more accountability on state campuses and lower costs. Academics on the state’s largest campuses bristled at the proposals.
Signs of discord continued into 2012, when Perry backed UT regents who rejected a tuition hike plan endorsed by Powers.
Cigarroa said his frustration with Powers stemmed from a lack of communication. He also suggested that he and Powers would agree on a course of action for the university, only to watch Powers give a public impression that the two were misaligned.
But speculation surrounding Powers had quieted recently. He bolstered his reputation in academia upon being named chairman of the Association of American Universities in October, and also received a public endorsement from new UT regents chairman Paul Foster this fall.
Other regents have a less favorable impression of Powers. Regent Wallace Hall faces possible impeachment over accusations that he misused his office in an attempt to force out Powers, who was expected to testify next week to lawmakers about Hall.
The Texas Coalition for Higher Education Excellence, formed in 2011 in wake of the higher education debate, has backed Powers. Also coming to his defense Thursday was influential Texas booster Red McCombs, who is a close friend of Brown’s and among the university’s more generous donors.
McCombs said he didn’t think Powers’ future was tied to Brown’s.
“No. But on the other hand, there is a connection,” McCombs said. “There are some real well-meaning people that feel like Powers has not done a good job. I think he has done one of the best jobs in the country. One of the absolute best.”
Texas A&M is also putting leadership at the top of its agenda this week. Its regents are scheduled to vote Saturday on a new interim president to replace Bowen Loftin, who is leaving to become chancellor at the University of Missouri.