Nation | Elections

Showdown At The UT Corral

University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers, center, talks with the media following a Dec. 2013 regents meeting in Austin.

University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers, center, talks with the media following a Dec. 2013 regents meeting in Austin.

AP, Eric Gay

Like any ugly, long-running confrontation between a husband and wife or next-door neighbors — or between anybody, really — it’s hard to know exactly when the dispute between University of Texas President Bill Powers and Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry truly began.

But in the end, when the dust settled, one thing was clear: when powerful university presidents and powerful governors tangle, the politician usually ends up on top.

The conflict began when Perry friend and donor Jeff Sanderfer — a savvy offshore oilman and a board member of the influential conservative think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation – began advocating the position that research universities like The University of Texas should be run more like a business. In the service of that idea, Sanderfer created what he called “seven breakthrough solutions” for higher ed reform.

A main thrust was against university tenure for professors — more contract professors and fewer staff. Bonus pay should be based only on student evaluations. There should be less emphasis on academic research and more on creating a skilled workforce and teaching larger classes.

When Gov. Perry began to push for some of these reforms at his alma mater Texas A&M, there was a backlash from many of the faculty. When Sanderfer’s bonus pay model began to rate each Aggie professor on a graph showing how much money each professor cost the university versus how much money they supposedly made the university, it drew A&M an embarrassing scolding from the prestigious Association of American Universities: if A&M continued down this path its membership in AAU would be in play.

When A&M reacted by firing its deputy chancellor and Perry’s top man in the university administration in September of 2011, the deputy chancellor pulled a pocketknife on the lawyers who’d come to escort him out. None of this was doing any wonders for A&M’s reputation, nationally.

In Austin, the UT administration and faculty watched the drama in College Station with growing alarm. UT likes to consider itself among the nation’s best public universities — on par with the University of North Carolina and Michigan. Taking marching orders from an Aggie governor who struggled to maintain a “C” average as an undergrad was not on the agenda. And make no mistake, that’s how plenty at The University (as it calls itself) and even outside UT framed the conflict in their mind — Longhorns vs. Aggies.

UT President Bill Powers became the point man in the Longhorns’ resistance. And when Powers looked behind him he saw a large and powerful army which included the faculty, student body and alumni, including many very rich and powerful Texas Exes. Their collective battle cry? Do what you will at A&M, but keep your hands off UT.

Powers’ defiance infuriated Perry, the most powerful politician in Texas. If Sanderfer and Perry’s reforms were dead on arrival in Austin, then getting rid of the man who’d disdainfully killed them became job one.

But that was not going to be easy. In October of last year, Powers was elected chair of the Association of American Universities, marking him as one of the most best-known administrators in the nation. Not only that, Powers was closing in on a $3 billion dollar capital campaign, the most lucrative fundraising venture in UT history. His resistance to Governor Perry’s reformers had earned Powers enormous credibility; even if the governor was a Texas Aggie, dozens of other powerful state politicians were Texas Exes and they liked Powers. And that included former University of Texas cheerleader and Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Nevertheless, in Texas, Gov. Perry almost always gets what he wants. He’s served longer than any governor in state history, which has allowed him to appoint every regent on UT’s board. One of them, Wallace Hall, launched a series of investigations aimed at Powers’ stewardship; UT fought back and its allies in the Texas legislature drew up articles of impeachment for the regent, accusing him of conducting a “witch hunt” to get rid of the UT president.

While the Texas lieutenant governor had the Senate pass a resolution praising Powers, the Wall Street Journal took Hall’s side editorializing that the regent had exposed a cozy relationship between the legislature and the university.

Last week it all came to a head when UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa suddenly demanded Powers’ resignation, indicating the Board of Regents would move to fire him. On Thursday, Powers offered his resignation — to take effect not immediately, but almost a year from now. Cigarroa accepted the compromise.

The outcome is widely considered a victory for Bill Powers in that he was allowed to leave under his own terms. But while the battle may have gone to Powers, the war might be won by Perry and his higher education reformers.

Perry and Cigarroa will have left their posts by next June when Powers departs but if their successors are willing to take up the mantle and continue the fight to move the University of Texas away from its historical mission as a research institution Powers’ fight will have been in vain.

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