Block the July 4 Coup

July 7, 2014
Andrea C. Gore, Hillary Hart and William Beckner

Like our fellow Americans, we planned to spend the July 4 holiday weekend with our families and friends. Instead, on the late afternoon of Independence Day, we found our email inboxes near to bursting with reports that the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers, had received an ultimatum -- resign, or be fired this week -- from the chancellor of the University of Texas System, Francisco Cigarroa. The timing of this alarming news regarding our president, and the short timeline, seem very odd. Chancellor Cigarroa had announced earlier this year that he will be stepping down to return to his prior career in academic medicine. In addition, many faculty feel it cannot be a coincidence that this announcement came during a national holiday in the summer session when the population of the university community is at its lowest.

While relationships are often strained among UT Austin, its parent organization UT System, and the Board of Regents that provides oversight of multiple campuses and health science centers across the state, we were completely blindsided by this "July 4 Coup." We first learned about events through the media, and we are still waiting to learn the basis for the chancellor's decision. In this age of ever-increasing rules and mandates from the Board of Regents to improve transparency and accountability, we call upon Chancellor Cigarroa to explain his actions, to allow the faculty and other stakeholders at UT-Austin to have a voice, and to listen to what we have to say.

Certainly, any decision to terminate Bill Powers's presidency is independent of his exceptional competence as a leader and visionary in higher education. President Powers has demonstrated an irrefutable ability to successfully lead a university of over 50,000 students and faculty members in good times and bad. Indeed, as chair of the Association of American Universities, he is a "president among presidents" in higher education.

As the 2013, 2014, and 2015 chairs elected to lead UT Austin's Faculty Council, we have worked closely with Bill Powers since he took the helm in 2006. From Hillary Hart, current chair: "In my years on the UT-Austin Faculty Council, and 27 years as a faculty member at the university, I have never seen a president so devoted to students and faculty and so open to innovative ways to deliver high-quality higher education. It seems extremely shortsighted to eject Bill Powers before he can finish the initiatives he has championed in partnership with the very UT System that is now threatening his presidency: programs to increase the four-year graduation rate, to empower faculty to develop innovative courses -- efforts that embody UT Austin's motto of ‘what starts here changes the world.’ ”

These are volatile times for higher education in Texas, and the country needs to pay close attention to events as they unfold. A similar, albeit not identical, situation happened at the University of Virginia in June 2012, when President Teresa Sullivan was forced to resign by that university’s Board of Visitors. Events at Virginia turned into a public relations nightmare, with several prominent faculty members talking about leaving, a loss of donations from alumni (until Sullivan was reinstated), and scorn from the entire country. Interestingly and importantly, it was ultimately the backlash from the faculty that seems to have made the greatest difference in U.Va.'s reappointing Sullivan as president. Among the similarities between the U.Va. and the UT situation, it is interesting that faculty at U.Va. learned of Sullivan's forced resignation on a hot summer Sunday.

Like our counterparts at U.Va., UT Austin faculty members, while famed for independent-minded behavior, are fiercely protective and proud of our university and the president who leads us. Although we have not been heard -- yet -- our voices will be loud, unambiguous, and unanimous in moving forward.

The forced resignation or firing of President Powers, if it happens, will irreparably damage UT Austin's reputation across the state and country, and around the world. His firing would destabilize an exceptionally productive and internationally respected institute of higher learning and research, resulting in a loss of productivity and ultimately, a decline in the quality of education for our students. We cannot believe this is a desirable outcome to leaders at UT System.

A case in point is the new Dell Medical School under development on the Austin campus. The university is in the critical early stages of establishing roots in the medical community, hiring a top-notch faculty, and attracting the country's best students. This will prove exceedingly difficult to achieve in an environment that may, to external appearances, appear hostile. We believe that Chancellor Cigarroa, a talented transplantation surgeon, will understand the consequences of a missed opportunity to build a highly innovative new medical school at the UT System's flagship university.

The July 4 Coup seems to us unmerited, unjustified, and unacceptable.

Bio

Andrea C. Gore, who will be chair of the UT Faculty Council in 2015-16, is Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Hillary Hart, chair of the council during 2013-14, is distinguished senior lecturer in civil, architectural and environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

William Beckner, the 2014-15 chair of the council, is the Paul V. Montgomery Memorial Centennial Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

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