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University of Texas community rallies behind Austin president in dispute with politicians

Don’t Mess with Texas
May 14, 2012

The idea that students would come out en masse to support a president after he repeatedly tried to increase tuition over his superiors’ objections might seem farcical, but it’s exactly what happened last week in Texas.

When Texas Monthly Senior Executive Editor Paul Burka reported Wednesday night that, according to an unnamed source, the University of Texas Board of Regents was moving to remove UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. from his position – likely over Powers’s clash with the board and Gov. Rick Perry about Powers’s push to raise tuition – students were some of the first people to take to social media to marshal support for Powers.

Following students’ outpouring of support, faculty members, alumni, state politicians, and others tied to the university all came out to publicly defended Powers, calling him an exemplary leader who is doing what is best for the university in the face of a struggling state budget. By the end of the day Friday, there had been thousands of mentions of Powers on Twitter and Facebook; a Facebook group called “I Stand With Bill Powers” has more than 11,000 members.

“Interestingly enough, the reaction really started with the students at the university,” said Pamela Willeford, former member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and a member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of influential Texans formed in response to the cost-cutting policies pushed by state lawmakers, which has expressed support for Powers since the Texas Monthly report. “It’s unbelievable how social media plays into it.”

The outpouring of support says several things about Powers and the university. For one, it demonstrates that Powers, who has been at UT-Austin’s helm for six years, still has champions in all corners of the university, which are tough to find at a time when public university administrators have to make dramatic cuts year after year. The support also shows that students and others aren’t fond of political interference in the university’s day-to-day operations and, in some cases, are still willing to trust academic administrators over politicians about what is best for their degrees.

The dispute underscores the precarious position of traditionally independent public college and university presidents at a time when college costs and outcomes become more and more of an issue in state and national politics.

“Powers is an extremely respectful individual with enormous intellectual authority and integrity. He has the values you want in an administrator,” said Alan Friedman, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the university’s Faculty Council. “That is not being valued here, and that gets him in trouble.”

The Price of Disagreement

The current debate about Powers’s position began in March when Perry’s chief of staff e-mailed the University of Texas system regents and chancellor to pass on the governor’s “deep concern over any tuition increase and his conviction that the university should be able to identify efficiencies to fund whatever priorities any increase would be intended to support,” according to public records obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Holding tuition level at the University of Texas at Austin is a position that will likely gain Perry support among the general public, said several members of the university community. Polling shows that Texans, in general, want higher education to be less expensive.

Despite the governor’s objection, Powers requested the maximum amount the board indicated they were willing to consider, an increase of about $130 a year for the next two years. Revenue from the increase would be directed toward improving student performance, in particular the four-year graduation rate, which has recently become a big focus for the university. The university is identifying bottleneck courses and making them more accessible, making freshman orientation mandatory, and cracking down on students who take too long or change majors as upperclassmen.

While the state’s various governing board approved tuition increases for most other state universities, the University of Texas Board of Regents held tuition level for the Austin campus. R. Bowen Loftin, president of the flagship campus of the Texas A&M University system, who had also been told not to request a tuition increase, did not propose one, despite the fact that the university’s tuition and fee board recommended increasing tuition nearly 4 percent.

After the board voted to reject the tuition hike, Powers publicly expressed disappointment with the decision. "I’m disappointed that our proposal was not adopted,” he said. “It was very carefully worked out. It was worked out in consultation with students. It takes into account a very strong concern with costs of higher education for students and their families.”

In-state tuition at UT-Austin is currently about $5,000 a semester, which is less expensive than many public universities. But University of Texas administrators say they provide significant aid to students who need it. According to a university spokesman, a quarter of the student body at UT-Austin pays less than $2,500 a year in tuition.

Thor Lund, a third-year student at UT-Austin and student body president, said students were consulted about the proposed tuition increase and that many favored it, understanding that it would benefit them in the long run. "In all the decisions [Powers] makes, he is open to student input," Lund said. "A lot of the things he does are all for the students, with the goal of doing what the students want. He is huge on improving the values of our degrees."

A Stampede of Support

After Burka published his blog, the outpouring of support came swiftly.

Friedman said he is taking a resolution to support Powers to the Faculty Senate when its meets for a scheduled meeting today. He said he expects the measure to pass, since faculty members he has talked with are supportive of Powers in the current dispute. Austin faculty members have generally supported Powers during his tenure and have been quick to defend him from the state’s politicians. Last year, after another instance in which Powers clashed with outside forces, the Faculty Council passed a unanimous vote of confidence in him and the whole administrative team. Friedman joked that, as a faculty member who has had several clashes with administrators during his career, he had a hard time believing what he was doing.

The Texas Exes, the university’s alumni association, backed Powers on Thursday. “Contact the Board of Regents, and tell them you support stability at The University of Texas,” wrote Machree Gibson, the group’s president, in a letter to alumni. “Tell them you support advancing its mission and its leadership. Tell them you think that, as the governing body, they should receive — and even welcome — the unvarnished views of professional educators, like President Powers.” The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education also expressed support for Powers.

Powers's only statement has been one he issued Thursday, in which he expressed gratitude for the support. "I will continue to work with the entire UT community to move the university forward," he wrote. "At this moment, I am focused on the more than 8,000 students who will graduate next week and make immeasurable contributions to society — extending the university’s legacy of excellence and our positive impact on Texas."

The outpouring of support for Powers can partially be explained by the fact that, during his six years at the university, Powers has generally pushed measures that appeal to the groups that are now supporting him: students, faculty, and alumni. His overall goal for several years has been to make UT-Austin the best public university in the country. That includes reforming the undergraduate curriculum to make it more rigorous, lowering the student-faculty ratio, improving graduation rates, increasing private philanthropy, constructing new student activity space, and attracting and retaining world-class teachers and researchers members.

That kind of push is supported by students and alumni, who want to see the value of their degrees increase, and faculty, who want better salaries and resources, the ability to attract better colleagues, and respect for their intellectual endeavors and teaching. But such measures require funding, which does not necessarily square with a governor and legislators who are critical of government spending and families who are wary of continual tuition increases.

Powers is not alone in the level of scrutiny he has faced. University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa has also faced some pressure from the state’s politicians, particularly over his resistance to adopt policy changes that have popular support in the state but not the university communities. Cigarroa said Thursday that Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell never directed him to fire anyone, although the Texas Monthly report suggests otherwise.

Powers, along with other UT-system presidents, will face a review by the board in August.

Playing Politics

Powers has been in an unstable position for several years now. As the head of the flagship campus of the state’s most prominent system, he faces a level of scrutiny from the public and political figures that the heads of smaller and less prominent campuses don’t face. He has clashed with the state's politicians on several occasions.

There is a long history of political entanglement in Texas’ public higher education institutions. “Texas political culture is ambivalent at best about education, higher education in particular,” said Calvin Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who studies the state’s political culture, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed in August. “Politicians have long tried to seek to control the extent to which education, and particularly higher education, impinges uncomfortably on that culture.”

But many say the current set of disputes, arising mainly from politicians’ efforts to enact various reforms to the cost and production of the universities -- two issues that attract broad public interest -- is different.

The dispute between Powers and the state’s politicians represents a larger trend in higher education across the country. The emergence of higher education costs and outcomes as major political issues in state and national debates means that governors and legislators are likely to be held accountable for what is happening in these systems. Governors and legislators can score easy political points by holding the line on tuition, since the general public tends to hold campus administrators, rather than politicians, responsible for the programs and resources that are cut as a result of decreased revenue.

But unlike other state agencies, political oversight of higher education institutions has historically been tenuous. In most states politicians appoint members of governing boards, but those appointments are often staggered and extend past any one governor’s tenure, leaving a variety of perspectives on any given board. Board members have also been given wide latitude to act in the long-term interests of institutions, rather than for a single politician’s short-term gain. Campus leaders such as Powers are also often selected by committees that include alumni, students, rather than just state officials and their appointees, ensuring another level of independence.

But because higher education is becoming a major issue in political discussion, politicians have become increasingly concerned with the decisions made on campuses, as well as who is making those decisions. In states such as Virginia and Arizona, politicians have begun to seek restrictions on how much tuition revenue can be used on financial aid, which could hold down tuition on middle-class families – those most likely to vote. In Texas and elsewhere, politicians want to hold the line on tuition increases. Those interests can clash with what might be good for institutions in the long run, which is what boards and campus administrators are charged with upholding.

Texas higher education has been particularly political because the governor has sole authority for appointing members of the university system governing boards. And since Perry has served as governor for more than 11 years, he has been able to appoint every member of the state’s six boards, and he has tended to appoint people who agree that the universities need certain reforms. The system chancellors who have been appointed in recent years have also tended to come from a political background, rather than an academic one.

As a result of these trends, governing boards and presidents such as Powers are under increasing pressure to do what politicians want.

Willeford puts it on governing board members, who have significant independence, to work to keep such pressure off of presidents. “We expect our regents to be thoughtful stewards of our institutions and the resources that support those institutions,” Willeford said. “We hope they will stand up and be counted on to protect our treasured institutions.”

 

 

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