Meetings of the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents tend to be highly scripted, with the nine regents and the 15 campus presidents showing much deference to each other. Differences are usually resolved through informal, private conversations.
It didn’t go that way for Bill Powers, president of the Austin flagship, during Wednesday’s meeting of the board’s academic committee in downtown Austin. Three regents asked him pointed questions about fundraising operations, the size of the student body and other matters.
It was the latest flash point in what seems to be an increasingly tense relationship between Powers and a few members of the governing board.
Regent Wallace Hall insisted on questioning Powers even though Regent Steve Hicks, chairman of the academic committee, had said he wanted to move on to another agenda item. Among other things, Hall wanted to know why Powers hadn’t hired a vice president for development, or fundraising, after the board instructed him to do so.
Powers replied that he plans to hire such an individual but didn’t do so earlier because the person running the development office did a commendable job without that title and the higher salary it typically commands. That person, David Onion, has since taken a fundraising position in the athletics department.
“I’m not a believer in title creep,” Powers said.
That explanation didn’t sit well with Hall, who said all of UT’s peer universities have a vice president for development. “None of them have this org (organizational) chart,” Hall said. “You wouldn’t go without a vice president of finance.”
Hall also questioned Powers about a lack of progress in meeting some of the goals set by a blue-ribbon panel in 2004, such as reducing the student-faculty ratio and the size of the student body. Regent Brenda Pejovich questioned the UT president about slow progress in recent years in raising four-year graduation rates, which have hovered between 51 percent and 53 percent for five years. Regent Alex Cranberg asked why stipends for graduate students hadn’t been increased.
Powers said that budget cuts have stymied progress and that the optimum size of the student body is under review. The blue-ribbon panel recommended 48,000 students; enrollment this past fall stood at 52,186.
The questions came 10 days after the Board of Regents held a rare Sunday session to discuss in private the issue of inappropriate relationships between employees and students. The session was abruptly scheduled after the regents learned that an assistant football coach at the Austin campus was disciplined for “inappropriate consensual behavior with an adult student one time during the 2009 Fiesta Bowl activities.”
Asked about the matter a few days later, Powers told the Statesman that the UT System and the Board of Regents had asked him to refer questions to them. That appeared to amount to a rare gag order.
Powers appears to enjoy a slim majority of support on the nine-member board. But that could change: The terms of three regents who seem supportive of the UT president — Paul Foster, James Dannenbaum and Printice Gary — ended Feb. 1.
Gov. Rick Perry hasn’t announced reappointments or replacements. Regents serve until successors are sworn in.
Tensions between Powers and some regents have flared on and off for a couple of years. Under regents Chairman Gene Powell, the board has taken a number of steps that prompted objections from the UT president, the alumni association and some prominent donors. Those steps include the compilation of productivity data on faculty members; the critics said class size, research output and other data fail to take the quality and impact of professors’ work into account.
Some supporters of UT and Powers expressed concern about the tone and substance of Wednesday’s meeting.
“These three regents seem to be deviating from normal standards of governance,” said Gordon Appleman, a lawyer in Fort Worth and a former chairman of the Chancellor’s Council Executive Committee, a group of more than 300 donors to the UT System.
Leslie Cedar, CEO and executive director of the Ex-Students’ Association, also known as the Texas Exes, said: “The line of questioning about the development organizational structure was unusual. Clearly, the results that the (fundraising) campaign has achieved so far under President Powers have been really successful.”
The campaign, which began in 2006, has raised $2 billion in donations toward an Aug. 31, 2014, goal of $3 billion.
High points in Powers’ presidency, which began in 2006, include a reworking of the core curriculum required of all undergraduates, the introduction of “signature” freshman courses taught by top faculty members, elevated standards and duties for leaders of academic departments and, more recently, a drive to boost four-year graduation rates, which stood at 51.4 percent in 2011, to 70 percent in 2016.
Regents on the Web
The University of Texas System broadcasts Board of Regents meetings on its website, utsystem.edu/board-of-regents. The board met Wednesday and will meet again Thursday.