JIM VERTUNO, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said Monday night that the decision to push embattled Austin campus President Bill Powers to resign or possibly be fired this week comes from a “fractured” relationship that continues to deteriorate.
Cigarroa met with Powers last week to tell him to resign or face being fired when the Board of Regents meets Thursday in Austin. Powers, who has survived several previous attempts to oust him, offered instead to step down in June 2015.
In his first public statement on the matter, Cigarroa seemed to reject that offer and described a difficult relationship between himself, the regents and Powers, which he said “has been strained to the point of becoming fractured for several years.”
Powers has had several high-profile clashes with Gov. Rick Perry and the governor-appointed regents over higher education policies. Cigarroa denied suggestions the latest effort to fire Powers is politically motived.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Cigarroa said, adding “the latest decision originates with the UT System’s Office of Academic Affairs and my office and is based on a breakdown of communication, collegiality, trust and a willingness to work together for the good of the university.”
A Powers spokesman declined immediate comment.
Powers has enjoyed a slim majority of support on the nine-member board in recent years, but Cigarroa’s renewed push signals that he has the five votes needed to fire him.
Cigarroa’s statement came after prominent University of Texas alumni and supporters rallied behind Powers earlier in the day.
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.”
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 supporting Powers. The coalition noted that Powers is chairman of the prestigious Association of American Universities, a consortium of public and private research schools.
Powers has led the 50,000-student flagship campus since 2006 and remains popular with faculty, students and alumni. But he has had a rocky relationship with Perry and several of the governor-appointed regents for several years.
His job was 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 has previously noted 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 transplant surgeon. His departure date has not yet been set.
Powers also 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.