The U. Texas President on the Brink

Bill Powers, embattled for years as president of the University of Texas at Austin, appears at last to be facing his Alamo.  On Thursday, the UT Board of Regents will meet and Powers, mired in controversy over costs and mission, is expected to either resign or be fired. A face-saving compromise would be to let Powers, who is 68, serve one more year, allowing time to search for his replacement.

The side demanding change has been led by Governor Rick Perry, whose term ends on December 31st, and a good number of the governing Board of Regents.  UT is a relatively expensive school despite having a massive endowment approaching $20 billion. A study by my organization, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), showed that UT had lots of very highly paid professors with little teaching responsibilities, and a conspicuously large administrative bureaucracy.  Supporters of the UT administration interpreted the study as an attack on the university’s research mission, and even enlisted the support of the Association of American Universities (the club of research-oriented institutions) to repel the criticism.

Some of the Powers supporters played dirty. When the CCAP report came out, for example, a Texas alumnus filed a public records request for my various activities at Ohio University, an obvious attempt to harass and embarrass me, rather than to simply address the legitimacy of the CCAP evidence. On another occasion, when I was speaking at a conference on university productivity, UT issued a press release attacking some of my earlier work, attempting to discredit my conference remarks.

But the attempt to intimidate me was child’s play compared with what they did to Wallace Hall, a regent who kept demanding various documents relating to operations of the university. Rather than commending Hall for his diligence in promoting institutional transparency, allies of the administration appealed to the legislature to impeach Hall, and also tried to have the legislature eliminate the ability of the regents to sanction the president, legislation that actually passed but was vetoed by Governor Perry. Nonetheless, it appeared that the pro-Powers forces were getting the upper hand–solid legislative support, plus the ferocious backing of a group of zealous UT alumni and friends.

Yet Hall apparently has unearthed pretty solid evidence that preferential treatment in admissions was given to relatives or friends of legislators, particularly at the law school, where Powers previously had been clean. At another arguably more distinguished state institution, the University of Illinois, such revelations led quickly to the forced departure of the president. In Texas, however, Hall was ostracized for revealing UT’s dirty little secrets, and nothing happened to Powers, despite much opposition to among the Regents.

However, as reports of legislative influence in admission decisions grow, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is now apparently demanding Powers’ resignation. Perhaps a resignation and admissions reform can avert a scandal that would severely hurt UT’s reputation. Powers remains very popular with students and faculty, so in some ways it is a classic battle over who runs the university: itself, or “outsiders” –its governing board, the governor, etc. The University of Virginia briefly faced this issue a couple of years ago, and the governing board backed down on its planned firing of the president after campus objections. But where huge amounts of public monies are involved (UT with its massive endowment), responsible stewardship should include accountability to the broader public.

Related: More Political Turmoil at the University of Virginia

Supporters of Powers note that UT Austin only gets 12 percent of its money from the state, and therefore Governor Perry and his appointed Regents should not have disproportionate say in running the university. Perhaps the long term solution is to privatize the Austin campus of UT –give it control over most of the endowment in return for an end to state appropriations, with the understanding that a new board would not be controlled by the governor. If $15 billion of the endowment were given to UT Austin (probably requiring an amendment to the state constitution), the school would have roughly $11,000 or $12,000 per student in endowment support, an amount greater than that of many quite good private universities. Alternatively, use the endowment to fund vouchers for students to attend UT. If virtually the entire endowment were used this way, it would probably fund 150,000 vouchers ranging (depending on income) from $1,000 to $10,000 each, averaging $5,000.  High income and out-of-state students would receive nothing. This would fund students attending any UT campus. To avert future civil wars and alter governance, moving towards partial privatization of the University is one option.

America’s second largest state’s flagship university should be one of our greatest educational institutions. In reality, several smaller states (e.g., North Carolina, Michigan, Virginia, Illinois, Wisconsin) have public universities that are arguably better than UT. Until Texas gets its act together, it is not going to break into the top ranks –even with all its money.

Update:  Inside Higher Ed reports that Powers will stay on until June 2015.

 

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