The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Attempt to Depose University of Texas President

July 7, 2014

Over the July 4th weekend, UT System Chancellor Cigarroa demanded that UT President Bill Powers resign or be fired by July 10th. Bill Powers refused but offered a timetable to step-down. Supporters of the embattled president have launched a petition drive that now has nearly 8500 signatures. At stake is the future of higher education in the state of Texas and whether or not Texas values tier 1 research institutions. 

There has been a long-running battle in the state of Texas over higher education, with Governor Rick Perry and a number of his allies on the Board of Regents attempting to re-shape Texas universities in their preferred image with less emphasis on scholarship and research, a greater emphasis on teaching, an increase in enrollment, and a reduction in tuition costs to students. While aspects of that agenda (affordability and access) sound attractive, these plans are largely divorced from reality, and the impact if enacted would undermine Texas’ best tier one research university. UT President Bill Powers has wisely resisted these plans, and in the process, incurred the wrath of the governor and his supporters who have tried to oust him over the past several years. UT alums and supporters in the legislature and beyond, including many Republicans, have fought back and started to turn the tables on some of Perry’s allies on the Board of Regents, namely Wallace Hall, setting up legislative inquiries about whether he overstepped his authority.

Why Now?

Most of us thought that this had put to bed efforts to fire Powers, but over the weekend, the Chancellor set in motion this effort to fire Powers. The reason? Breitbart reported last week of efforts by legislators to skew the admissions process in favor of people they like. The UT system has done a study about whether there was a problem in the admissions process but “did not uncover any evidence of a systematic, structured or centralized.” The Breitbart story seems like an excuse for allies of Perry to try use the report for their own political ends.

Inside Higher Education reported why the timing is bad:

Powers’s supporters said privately Friday that this would be a particularly bad time to force him out. With Cigarroa leaving and a new governor arriving, UT Austin needs continuity, they say. They also note that the university is entering the home stretch of a $3 billion capital campaign.

The timing seems to be an effort by Perry, a lame duck governor, to get someone he likes in the job before a successor comes in after the fall gubernatorial election in the state. Perry’s broadside against higher education is not universally popular among Republicans so even if Greg Abbott were elected governor, he might not have the same idiosyncratic take on the university system.

In addition to the petition drive, faculty and alumni are speaking out challenging these steps taken by the Chancellor. An emergency meeting is planned for Wednesday, July 9th, by the Faculty Council. The Legislature’s Transparency Committee has already sent a reminder that pending its investigation of one of the regents, that the UT Chancellor should not seek the dismissal of Powers. We shall see what happens, but I’m hopeful that those who support quality higher education prevail.

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.