Point Austin: The Powers That Be

The UT stalemate is one battle in an education war

Point Austin

On Wednesday afternoon, UT-Austin Pres­ident Bill Powers submitted his resignation to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa – effective June 2, 2015.

That was in fact a victory for Powers, who last week had been asked by Cigarroa to resign by Oct. 1 or face possible dismissal by the University regents. The explicit reasons for Cigarroa's request were vague – publicly, a "breakdown of communication" – but it was the second time the request had been made (the first was later withdrawn). Accepting Powers' postdated resignation, Cigar­roa again cited "a long history of issues with communication, responsiveness and a willingness to collaborate." Cigarroa himself resigned in February – awaiting a replacement; and all of this happens in the shadow of ongoing turmoil over the role of the Board of Regents, the Legislature, and Gov. Rick Perry in addressing the future of higher education in Texas.

Since the news broke over the July 4 weekend – significantly, on the Texas Breitbart.com website via embattled right-wing operative Michael Quinn Sullivan – folks have been choosing sides. There was a petition in defense of Powers, signed by students, faculty, and alumni. The Texas Exes – led by former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutch­ison – defended him as well. Legislators deliberating the impeachment investigation of regent Wallace Hall (trigger of all this uproar), reminded the regents that no firings should take place until that investigation is concluded.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis wrote to Cigarroa, "Forcing Pres­ident Powers out of office immediately prior to your departure does a disservice to both Bill's record in office and your legacy as Chancellor. Further, the Uni­ver­si­ty itself deserves better than this. I am concerned that a forced resignation will further inflame an already stressed relationship between legislators and the Board of Reg­ents. This strain has tarnished the Univer­sity enough; it shouldn't also end the career of a popular and successful public servant."

Hall's Hail Mary

With the announcement that he'll stay on until the end of the next academic year – and legislative session – Powers and his allies have won this round. But the compromise is unlikely to silence Powers' critics, led by Hall and a conservative cabal who insist that they have discovered malfeasance in UT admissions procedures, particularly to the law school. Reportedly, some law school applicants with letters of recommendation from legislators have a better chance of gaining admission than other applicants with higher grades or test scores – suggesting favoritism, or corruption, or – astoundingly – that letters of recommendation from legislators carry some weight with admissions officers.

In a state that denies millions of residents access to health care, that has persistently underfunded public schools in flagrant violation of its own constitution, and that, under Gov. Perry, has steadily undermined higher education via both underfunding and hare-brained schemes to run universities like discount warehouse stores – the fact that some law school applicants might have friends in high places barely qualifies as news, let alone a scandal. But right-wing websites have seized on this test-score mania as Powers' Watergate, and hailed Hall as the Man Who Blew the Whistle – after he churned recklessly through endless reams of open records' fishing requests in hopes of finding something, anything, that might undermine the president.

Moreover, in 2013, long before any of this law school distraction was even suggested, Hall was telling Alabama football coach Nick Saban, whom he was attempting to recruit over Powers' head, that the president would be gone within the year.

Education First

I've written about Hall's dismal record previously ("Perry's Peacock," April 18), and I won't rehash all that here. Suffice to say that if anybody needs to leave the Forty Acres, it's Perry's designated enforcer. Powers, if indeed allowed to remain through next spring, will likely outlast Hall, Cigarroa, and even Perry himself, giving the university at least a chance to have both a chancellor and president next year who adhere to a vision of higher education that is neither a political football nor an online trade school. (That's wistfully presuming that the next governor will not be as willfully ignorant about education as the current incumbent.)

Even Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recognized that firing Powers would "make it near impossible to replace Powers with a world-class president." Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, was more blunt. "I thought the State of Texas had in the past two years reached the outer limit of political intrusion into academic institutions, but apparently not," Rawlings wrote. "Believe me, faculty members and researchers and graduate students across the country know what is transpiring in Texas: the complete politicization of higher education. This latest fiasco makes a bad situation much worse."

The fiasco is not a question of personality clashes between university officials, or whether a few law school students got preferential treatment, or even whether the regents have the authority to hire and fire university presidents. It's primarily a question of whether higher education in Texas will be allowed to become yet another polarized political institution, and any semblance of university and faculty independence will be sacrificed to the privatization priorities of the state's ruling political party.

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