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Do you stand with Bill Powers? Governor Rick Perry meddles with the forces of Texas Longhorn nation

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Bill Powers giving the State of the University Address. Courtesy of Bill Powers Facebook
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin_Bill Powers_may 2012_address
UT Austin president Bill Powers
Austin Photo: Author_kevin_benz

Not satisfied simply mucking up his alma mater, Texas A&M, Governor Rick Perry set his sights on The University of Texas. And the Twitterverse blew up.

Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m., Paul Burka, the Texas Monthly Senior Executive Editor and political guru, posted this on his blog, while acknowledging it unconfirmed:

A source tells me that UT president Bill Powers may be in danger of losing his job as a result of his opposition to Governor Perry’s insistence on a tuition freeze... My understanding, based on what a source with knowledge of the proceedings has conveyed, is that Regents’ chairman Gene Powell asked Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to recommend that Powers be fired. Cigarroa refused. The next step will likely be a special meeting of the board to take action.

You read that right. The UT President is in danger of losing his job because he disagrees with the Governor. A side-note: Mid-day Thursday, Cigarroa denied being asked to fire anyone.

Within hours, social media exploded in support of Powers. By noon Thursday, a new Facebook site, I stand with Bill Powers, boasted nearly 10,000 members, and SaveBillPowers gleaned 500 Likes. On Twitter #savebillpowers began trending in Austin and a full Twitter account @SaveBillPowers was created.

By comparison, the Facebook group Bill Powers can stand for himself, enjoyed 56 members.

The reaction and support came not because Powers wants to raise tuition of course, but because he's an honest and transparent leader, popular with both students and alumni, and because most people don't like seeing the Governor acting as puppet-master. As Burka notes:

If it is accurate, the impact on the university’s reputation could be devastating. UT will have to undertake the search for a new president at a time when top-grade candidates will be unlikely to be attracted to a position that is subject to political pressure.

Whether or not this particular story, based on an anonymous source actually is true, the reaction to it is news as political manipulation and hypocrisy further polarize the populace.

Political pressure and cronyism are nothing new to Governor Perry. He stacked both the Texas A&M and University of Texas Regents board's with political friends who were apparently qualified not based on their deep knowledge and sincere interest in higher education, but based upon how much money they donated to the Governor's political campaign and pet causes.

To be fair, the job of Texas Governor comes with perks. One of the best perks, besides getting to fly around the country and run for President, is getting to appoint various offices, committees and boards, including the Board of Regents at Texas public universities. Most Governors use this perk to their advantage, appointing friends and contributors to high positions — there's nothing different or, frankly, wrong with that. Perry, however, changed the game not by appointing friends and contributors but by appointing them based only upon their agreement to keep giving and do his bidding.

Boards of Regents are special. They run the institutions that educate our next generation of leaders. Traditionally, Regents do the right thing for the institution, allowing independent Chancellors (who run the entire University systems) and Presidents (who run the individual universities and work for the Chancellors) to run their organizations. They are governing boards, not operational leaders, not CEOs. That's not what Perry wants though. Perry wants puppets.

Once Perry was finished stacking the board at his alma mater, the school's leadership crumbled under the weight of Regent incompetence; Chancellors and Presidents came and went, the school paid "settlements" due to Regent failures in hiring and was embarrassed by negative national publicity.

Apparently unable to learn from those mistakes, Perry moved on the University of Texas System. In spring of 2011, the new Chairman of the UT Board of Regents, Gene Powell who was appointed by Perry, made the creation of a new position, Special Advisor to the Board of Regents, a main priority. The job was filled by Rick O'Donnell, a researcher from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that coincidentally agrees in lock step with the Governor's views of higher education.

O'Donnell was a mess. He was given power generally reserved for the Chancellor, and he began calling for a reduction in research and an increase in untenured professors. Most universities try not to do either of those things in order to maintain their status as first-class, nationally accredited institutions of higher education.

The University of Texas Alumni Association, the Texas Exes, 200,000 members strong, launched an email campaign calling for Powell's firing and they won. O'Donnell was reassigned within months of getting the job.

As Perry proves time and again, his approach is always, "If you disagree with me, you are simply wrong." So one more time it would appear the Governor is working his fingers into areas better managed by those who know something about higher education, and again, Texas alumni are launching their own counter attack.

Thursday afternoon, the UT Faculty Council announced a special called meeting to be held Monday, May 14. On the agenda is a resolution in support of Powers. It reads in part:

Recognizing the extraordinary efforts exerted by UT Austin President Bill Powers and his administrative team in support of the recent proposal for a modest, well-documented, and crucial tuition increase, the Faculty Council strongly commends them for seeking to protect and enhance the quality of our students’ education and the value of their degrees, as well as the research and public service achievements of the faculty.  The fact that the Regents ultimately rejected the proposal diminishes neither the campus’s need for such financial support nor the efforts made to attain it.

Late Thursday afternoon Powers made a statement, as reported by Texas Alcalde:

Powers expressed his love of UT, thanked the Longhorn family for its support, and called it “an honor” to serve as UT’s president.

He added: “I will continue to work with the entire UT community to move the university forward. At this moment, I am focused on the more than 7,000 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.”night the Texas Exes sent out a letter to their 200,000 plus members. It was a call to action, asking alumni to support the President by contacting the Board of Regents.

Late Thursday night the Texas Exes sent an email to their 200,000 plus members. It was a call for action, asking them to contact the Board in support of the President. The letter reads in part:

... Now is no time for instability. We call on the Regents to disavow the published rumor that the leadership of its flagship risks being punished or fired for voicing respectful, measured dissent. Even rumors, when left in  lay without confirmation or comment, can lead to instability. And instability is a great enemy of achievement. 

UT stands poised to make major progress toward becoming the premier public teaching and research university in the country. In just the last few months, UT has hired two outstanding deans and taken a huge step toward establishing a medical school in Austin. Throughout his six years at the helm, President

Powers and the University have built on a long tradition of excellence. We do not want to see that progress jeopardized, nor the removal of a president who has been so successful at furthering UT’s mission. The UT System employs world-class professionals to run its universities; they should not be fired simply for voicing disagreement with Board decisions. ...

To contact the Board of Regents:

By phone: (512) 499-4402By email: bor@utsystem.edu

By mail:

Ashbel Smith Hall, Suite 820
201 West 7th Street
Austin, Texas 78701

Sincerely,
Machree Gibson
President, Texas Exes

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Editor's note: The author graduated from the University of Texas.

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