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Powers Survives

UT President will stay through June 2015

By Richard Whittaker, 8:50AM, Thu. Jul. 10

Bill Powers: Staying for another year
Bill Powers: Staying for another year

A victory of sorts for supporters of UT Austin President Bill Powers: Efforts to forcibly remove him today have seemingly been derailed, as he reached an agreement to step down on June 2, 2015.

For the last couple of years, there has been a determined effort by parts of the UT System Board of Regents to oust Powers. The most notable face of that effort had been Regent Wallace Hall, who now faces impeachment proceedings for his part in the witch hunt. However, over the July 4 weekend, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa made a behind-the-scenes demand that Powers quit immediately, or be fired at today's board meeting. Powers refused, instead offering to stay through the end of the next legislative session, to allow his replacement to be selected (at age 68, there was already a real question how much longer Powers would have wanted to stay anyway.)

Now the impasse has broken, with Powers sending Cigarroa a letter confirming he will step down next year. He will retain his faculty position with the School of Law after that date. Cigarroa has accepted his resignation, and wrote that the board of regents will starts a national search next month, with assistance from a "search advisory committee" that will include "representation of faculty, deans, students and community representatives of the University, as well as at least two current presidents from UT institutions and at least one member of the Board of Regents."

There has been national attention on this conflict. Today, The Wall Street Journal ran with the vaguely misleading headline "University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers Resigns." The Journal has become fixated on this issue (mainly, it seems, at the behest of Empower Texans boss and accused unregistered lobbyist Michael Quinn Sullivan) as what should be a provincial conflict has been blown up far beyond state lines.

So what's this all really been about? People like Hall, Quinn Sullivan, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the right wing noise machine's newest engines in Texas, Watchdog.Org and Breitbart, claim that Powers intervened in admissions at his old department, the law school, to give easier access for lawmakers and their families.

But as Chronicle contributor Christopher Hooks explains over at the Texas Observer, this is higher education's version of the education reform battle that has riven grade schools. A coalition of businessmen (in the case of public schools, generally from the tech community: in Texas higher education circles, oil men) decided that they knew academia better than academics. Education reformers believed the only thing that mattered was grades, and so was birthed high stakes testing. Higher education reformers wanted to cut costs, so out go more time- and money-intensive seminars and research, and in come near-worthless mass classes, and the only research allowed would be that which turns an immediate profit.

Gov. Rick Perry walked the state, claiming he could come up with a $10,000 degree. Academics pointed out that such a degree would be near-worthless, little more than a lecture series. Moreover, they argued that the core purpose of universities, to provide meaningful education and extend knowledge through research, would be devestated. That's why a virtually unprecedented coalition, from researchers to students, sitting lawmakers to the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education and the Texas Exes (including its chair, former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) have rallied to support the president.

So Powers stays through the end of the next legislative session, stripping Perry of his ability to ramrod through however his chosen replacement was. This means the next session becomes a battle over who will lead the state's flagship university going forward: A business-selected higher education reformer, or someone who understands how universities actually work.

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