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U of Texas political tensions to come to a head in legislative hearings this spring

High Noon in Austin
March 7, 2013

In the minds of a lot of Texans, the scene in Austin looks something like this: Republican Governor Rick Perry and William Powers Jr., president of the University of Texas at Austin, are standing 10 paces apart, staring each other down, hands by their hips. The clock is counting down to a duel. One man will get gunned down. The other will walk away with the state's flagship university.

In the past few weeks, actions by Texas policy makers has refocused national attention on this perceived clash over the future of UT-Austin, and, more specifically, Powers's job security. Those developments include tough questioning of Powers by members of the system’s governing board, all of whom were appointed by Perry and thought to be closely aligned with the governor; requests by board members that lawmakers say amount to micromanagement; the appointment by Perry of two new regents; and the passage of a pro-Powers resolution by the state legislature, accompanied by impassioned defenses by the state’s lieutenant governor and some key lawmakers.

Those actions play into a narrative that pits the state’s conservative, populist governor -- characterized as a champion of a controversial “reform agenda” that some believe would make higher education institutions more student- and teaching-centric, accountable to taxpayers and efficient -- against administrators and faculty members at UT-Austin, led by Powers. They are painted as champions of an exemplary research university doing its best in the face of decreased government investment and increased public demands.

That narrative -- compelling as it is -- oversimplifies what is actually taking place in Texas, say individuals on all sides of the debate. Some of the regents’ reforms have been embraced by the administration at UT-Austin, including increased attention to online education and improvement of graduation rates. Regents also disagree with the governor on some key issues.

But the Perry-Powers dynamic nevertheless dominates discussion in Texas and in some higher education circles nationally, where the clash has come to symbolize the broader debate about the direction of public higher education in the United States.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, a group that includes UT-Austin and Texas A&M University, has referred to the state as “ground zero in the crisis afflicting public higher education in the U.S.” and “the epicenter of public debate about the function of public higher education, its cost, its productivity, and its value to students.”

“Governor Rick Perry has, with the help of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, launched an assault on Texas A&M and the University of Texas, Austin: he wants an undergraduate degree to cost $10,000, and no more; he wants graduates ready-made for jobs; he wants faculty members evaluated on the basis of how much money they bring in and how many students they teach,” he said in an October speech at the University of Virginia. “This is essentially to treat research universities as vocational schools, diploma mills, and grant-getters.”

"Governor Rick Perry has, with the help of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, launched an assault on Texas A&M and the University of Texas, Austin"
--Hunter Rawlings, AAU president

Regardless of whether or not Powers’s head is on the chopping block and dramatic change is imminent, many state lawmakers, faculty members, students and members of the general public believe it is. As a result, they view the governor's and regents’ actions toward the universities through that lens, making it increasingly difficult for the university’s governance structure to function effectively.

"I am hearing real concerns from people in the district that I represent," said state Sen. Kel Seliger, chair of the Texas Senate’s higher education committee. "As chair of the higher education committee I'm getting lots of calls from Longhorn Nation expressing concern about what they hear."

And Texas is not alone in this problem. At institutions across the country, narratives -- often rooted in truth, but sometimes inflated by legend -- have taken hold of institutions and states and have undermined trust, whether at the University of Virginia, where disagreements between the board and administration have developed; New York University, where many faculty members distrust the administration; or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where many members of the the general public believe the administration to be hiding ties between academic problems and the athletic program.

Over the next few weeks, tensions in Texas are likely to come to a head as the state legislature plays host to three key debates: consideration of Perry’s most recent nominees to the University of Texas Board of Regents; committee hearings about whether board members micromanage affairs at the system’s Austin campus; and consideration of a bill that limits the regents' authority. The outcome of these hearings and the influence they have on the board and institution will likely shape the course of the university in the near term.

A Long Time Coming

In many respects, the debate about the future of UT-Austin reflects what Southern Methodist University political science professor Calvin Jillson calls a long-term divide in the state’s thinking about higher education. A populist vein, embodied by Perry and his allies, calls for low tuition and broad access at the universities -- UT-Austin and A&M included -- coupled with modest academic standards that lead to high numbers of graduates.

The other side of the debate, embodied by the leadership of UT-Austin and its supporters in the business community and legislature, believe that a state of Texas’ size and clout deserves an internationally renowned institution of higher education.

“There has always been a tension in Texas between populist expectations that tuition would be low and that standards would be modest so lots of Texans could move through the university, and the expectation that a great university system or systems were required to put a foundation under economic development,” Jillson said.

Most in Texas say the current debate about Powers, Perry, the UT Board of Regents and the direction of UT-Austin began in 2008 with Perry’s efforts to impose a controversial set of reforms generated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, and the foundation’s director, Jeff Sandefer, a wealthy former oil executive and entrepreneur who previously taught at the Austin business school, started his own entrepreneurship-focused university, and has close ties to Perry.

The general thrust of the reforms advocated by Sandefer amount to running the university with a more business-like mindset -- one that focuses on outcomes rather than inputs, embraces technology to reduce costs and measures, and bases decisions on student satisfaction. Opponents of those proposals say higher education institutions are different from businesses and therefore should not be run in the same model. While outcomes are important, they argue, the proposed reforms oversimplify the educational process.

For much of his more than 12-year tenure as governor, Perry appeared ambivalent about higher education in the state. Since the introduction of the policy foundation’s reform agenda, however, he has been active in pushing those and other higher education reforms, including writing columns calling for greater accessibility and better use of research dollars, advocating for a $10,000 degree and questioning the value of certain programs. His attention to higher education has also coincided with a greater national concern about the sector.

The governor's and Sandefer’s efforts incited several confrontations, including clashes at Texas A&M University that led to administrative turnover and similar incidents at UT-Austin.

Then last spring, a report by Paul Burka, a senior executive editor at Texas Monthly magazine, quoted anonymous sources saying that the UT Board of Regents was moving to oust Powers. The move was tied to Powers’s remarks after the board denied a tuition increase. At that meeting, the board approved a new medical school for UT-Austin, a long-held goal for the institution, and allocated $6.6 million to make up for the denied tuition revenue, something Powers called a temporary fix rather than a long-term solution.

"I think Perry’s influence in the system recently has been way overstated.”
-- Charles Miller, former chair of the University of Texas Board of Regents

The report that the board was moving against Powers was never substantiated by on-the-record sources. Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System, denied that the board asked him to fire Powers. Burka stuck by the story. Powers stayed in his job.

Since that time, however, people at the University of Texas at Austin have continued to believe that the board would try again to implement reforms and oust Powers, particularly once Perry had the opportunity to make new appointments to the board, replacing some of Powers’s supporters with his own allies.

Charles Miller, former chairman of the UT Board of Regents, said the current narrative about the clash between Perry and Powers has been exaggerated and that Perry’s interest in making specific changes to the state's higher education institutions has receded from a few years ago. “I’m not saying Sandefer wasn't influencing things, and I’m not saying Perry didn't get more involved than he should have,” he said. “But I think Perry’s influence in the system recently has been way overstated.”

Part of the issue might be personalities. Miller said Powers has clashed with multiple system administrators and regents during his time as president of UT-Austin. Some of those regents clashed with Perry.

Miller, who has been highly involved with Texas and U.S. education, is not an outright Perry supporter. While he donated to Perry when he chaired the board, his political contributions include a range of public figures, including Democrats and other Republicans. He supported former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when she challenged Perry for the governorship in 2010.

Personalities vs. Philosophies

Part of the shift in the tone of the Texas debate is the result of Perry’s appointees to the Board of Regents. Recent appointees have been more active in pushing a reform agenda, more demanding of system and institutional leaders, and more likely to express disagreement with board and system decisions. Many within the University of Texas, particularly faculty members, see members of the Board of Regents as extensions of Perry, implementing an agenda the governor has laid out.

Miller said that narrative oversimplifies what is going on. “The kind of people on the UT Board of Regents are not people who sit around waiting for the governor to tell them what to do,” he said. “That’s ludicrous.”

Board members might simply be more active because there are larger concerns in the sector right now, including rising tuition prices, lower state appropriations, greater calls for accountability and widespread concern about the value of a degree.

“Boards are recognizing that the stakes of higher education have risen,” said Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, in an interview about changing board dynamics in July. “The challenges are more difficult, the public trust is more uncertain, and as a bridge between the institution and the public, they’re now responsible for an increased level of accountability.”

Miller also said part of the reason the state is seeing a different tone with respect to higher education is because the type of people being appointed to the board are different than in the past. Previous board members tended to come from the traditional Texas business community -- executives at large companies who had experience working in corporate environments. The current crop comes from a more entrepreneurial business class. They have a certain way of seeing things and are trying to address what they see as issues that aren’t being addressed, which he says is not necessarily a bad thing.

“You have a board of people who are entrepreneurs, who came in with less patience and more intensity than traditional regents, and people feel that difference,” he said. “I have some sympathy for that impatience, because there is some existential risk and these entrepreneurs see that.”

The new board members are more willing to push a change agenda in line with Perry, he said. “When you’re anxious to do things, you sometimes stumble,” Miller said. “Entrepreneurs are O.K. with that.” So while they’re not responding to a specific agenda crafted by the governor, he said, they do tend to agree with the kinds of proposals Perry advocates.

This kind of activity by regents is consistent with what the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has called for over the years. Calls for such reforms have become more widespread and less associated with Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation alone.

Richard Novak, senior vice president for programs and research at the Association of Governing Boards, says that narrative about changing board dynamics could be true across higher education and account for some other clashes as well, such as what is happening at the University of Virginia.

In the Weeds

The increased activity by board members has led to charges of micromanagement. Critics specifically point to the actions of three individuals: Wallace Hall, Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich, all of whom were appointed by Perry in 2011.

Hall and Cranberg have made extensive open-records requests of UT-Austin in recent months. Novak says that while there is nothing wrong with regents asking tough questions of administrators, those requests should be made through the proper channels.

“There is nothing wrong with asking questions; it’s how you choose to go about doing that,” he said. “The board is a corporate body. Members do not have individual authority.”

In the case of the document requests, Novak said, the board members should have worked through the regents' committee structure and, if the right committee and the board as a whole thought the request to be a valid one, asked the system administration to prepare a report.

Regents have also ratcheted up questioning of Powers during public meetings -- though the criticisms leveled against Powers by regents in their open meetings don’t necessarily sync with the rhetoric coming out of the governor’s office when it comes to higher education. In February, the regents strongly questioned Powers on why he hadn’t hired a vice president for development, why the university hadn’t made what they deemed to be satisfactory progress toward improving graduation rates, and why the institution hadn’t improved funding for graduate education -- none of which is a particularly populist call in the vein of Perry.

But others see it as micromanagement. In an impassioned speech on the floor of the Senate last month, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst (who is elected independently from the governor), called out the regents for their actions with respect to Powers.

“I’m particularly troubled when I see UT regents going around this man and this administration,” Dewhurst said. “I see them trying to micromanage the system, and I see cases, allegedly, I’m told, of character assassination.… This issue is bigger than just UT-Austin and President Powers. This is about the reputation of the state of Texas.” Dewhurst’s speech was made in support of a resolution backing Powers, which passed both chambers of the legislature. Dewhurst also called for hearings about the regents’ actions.

"This issue is bigger than just UT-Austin and president Powers. This is about the reputation of the state of Texas.”
-- David Dewhurst, Lieutenant Governor of Texas

Jillson said he sees politics at work in the lieutenant governor’s recent statements. Dewhurst, who was widely viewed as “the establishment” choice for Senate when Hutchinson retired last year, was upset by Tea-Party favorite Ted Cruz in the Republican primary after a bitter race. “He saw some of the same forces that defeated him in his recent Senate run, some of the same people are now after Powers,” Jillson said. “The Tea-Party wing of the Republican party, the non-business wing of the Republican party. Some of the emotion in his support of Powers comes from his treatment by those interests.”

Seliger, chair of the Texas Senate’s higher education committee, introduced a bill two days later that would prevent appointees to the Board of Regents from voting on budgetary or personnel matters before they are confirmed by the Senate. Since the Texas legislature meets every other year, appointees made when the body was out of session would generally serve upon appointment and face confirmation votes when the Senate reconvened. There is concern among some lawmakers that Perry would appoint regents after the legislative session ended to avoid confirmation battles. The bill also mandates training in budgeting, policy development, ethics and governance, and prohibits board members from voting on major issues until they have completed that training.

"We’re not here to nitpick the Board of Regents," Seliger said. "We want to make sure that governance is exercised in the orderly fashion customarily proscribed by whoever is the arbiter of regent control."

Seliger’s bill would also change the wording of the statute to reserve to individual institutions of higher education all duties that were not specifically proscribed in the statute as belonging to the board or system.

The confirmation of Perry’s appointees, consideration of Seliger’s bill, and the hearings about UT governance are all likely to take place over the next month.

Jillson and others said that regardless of how the current slate of debates play out, Perry is unlikely to back off the agenda he has staked out on higher education if he is really interested in reforming the state’s higher education institutions.

“Perry is always probing,” Jillson said. “When he hits soft flesh he continues to push. When he hits bone, steel, he draws back a little bit. But he never goes away.”

 

 

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