When a dozen state senators and the lieutenant governor rose up last month to defend the president of the University of Texas against the school’s governing board, many observers were stunned. But it was just another, albeit the most dramatic, development in a long-running conflict between the UT System Board of Regents and President Bill Powers.
The UT president and his bosses have clashed on numerous issues in recent years, including tuition, faculty productivity and even the question of whether the university’s fundraising office should be led by a vice president or someone with a different title.
Now the debate is about to take another turn — or two or three.
A House-Senate oversight panel on higher education governance that was established two years ago has been reauthorized to once again examine the UT board’s operations and has scheduled its first hearing for March 19. A bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation that would limit regents’ authority. And Gov. Rick Perry’s latest nominees for the UT board — two would be new members and one a reappointment — could face tough questioning by senators during their confirmation hearings.
“At the root of this entire problem and controversy is answering the question, what is appropriate for a member of the Board of Regents?” House Speaker Joe Straus told the American-Statesman. “Is it to manage an institution or is it to serve as the equivalent of a corporate-type board of directors dealing at the highest level with executives but not managing the minutiae of the operation?”
Straus frowns on minutiae managing, as does his counterpart in the Senate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Both chambers passed resolutions honoring Powers last month, with Dewhurst decrying “UT regents going around this man” and “trying to micromanage” the university.
That was an indirect criticism of Perry, who appointed all of the regents to their posts, which, though unpaid, are among the most prestigious in state government.
The question of micromanagement is not new. UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa implored the regents nearly two years ago to refrain from micromanaging him or the system’s 15 campus presidents in a speech that drew an unqualified vote of support from all nine members of the governing board. The chancellor was responding to the penchant of some regents to pepper campuses, especially the Austin flagship, with requests for data and documents.
Cigarroa backed off from his position in an Oct. 1 memorandum to campus presidents that barred “obstructions to inquiries and requests from members of the governing board.” The chancellor cited a sexual abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University and a report on it by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that portrayed the governing board members there as passive overseers.
In recent months, Regent Wallace Hall Jr. has requisitioned more than 40 file boxes containing copies or originals of records that UT released in response to about 2,500 open records requests since Jan 1, 2011. Hall has not said why he wants to comb through the material.
“It sounds to me like micromanagement at its worst,” said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, a former leader of the oversight panel. “I thought we had addressed and resolved this problem in 2011. I thought that the regents had learned their lesson.”
Powers, Hall and regents Chairman Gene Powell didn’t respond to interview requests. Perry has said little about the matter, although a comment he made to The Dallas Morning News last month implied that Powers could be on shaky ground if he doesn’t carry out policies set by his bosses.
“If there is a conflict there, there are ways to deal with it,” Perry said.
The seeds of conflict were planted in May 2008, when the governor called a rare, perhaps unprecedented, collective meeting of public university boards. Philanthropist and Perry donor Jeff Sandefer recommended to the assembled regents, and the governor endorsed, several “breakthrough solutions” that didn’t sit well with Powers and many other higher education leaders.
Among the recommendations: award bonuses to teachers based solely on student evaluations, give state higher education funding directly to students in what would amount to a voucher system, and pay teachers according to the number of students they teach and the research dollars they garner.
Sandefer was an interesting choice for delivering that message.
A former oilman, Sandefer had a bitter and public falling-out with UT in 2002 after helping to build the nationally ranked entrepreneurship program at its business school. He quit and fired off an email to alumni charging that teaching had been sold out for research. Sandefer later co-founded the private Acton School of Business and a private elementary school, both in Austin.
Three UT regents with ties to Sandefer have been instrumental in the board’s growing scrutiny of the Austin campus. Regent Brenda Pejovich, like Sandefer, is on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit group that helped organize the governor’s summit and touted the “breakthrough solutions.” Regent Alex Cranberg and Sandefer have known each other for more than 20 years, and Cranberg once worked for an investment firm that put money into Sandefer’s offshore ventures. And Sandefer met Hall when both were students at UT more than 30 years ago.
Tensions between the board and Powers began to ramp up considerably when Powell, a San Antonio developer and technology entrepreneur, became chairman of the regents in February 2011. One of his first actions was to hire as a special adviser Rick O’Donnell — who previously was president of one of Sandefer’s charitable foundations, an adviser to another and, like Sandefer, a critic of much academic research.
Alumni and donors complained, and O’Donnell was dismissed after seven weeks on the job when he charged that UT System officials were suppressing the list of costs and revenues for each teacher at the system’s nine academic campuses.
Later, after the analysis was released, Powers complained that such approaches fail to take the quality of a professor’s teaching and research into account.
The relationship between the board and the campus soured more in May, when Powers protested after the regents turned down his request for a tuition increase. The governor had urged the regents to hold the line on academic charges despite legislative cuts in higher education funding.
Another tense moment came Feb. 13 of this year, when Hall, Pejovich and Cranberg quizzed Powers about the organization of his fundraising office, graduation rates and graduate student stipends. Five days later, six Republican senators and six Democratic senators rose one by one to praise Powers, followed by Dewhurst’s impassioned defense of a man who, he said, “deserves better treatment.”
Sen. Kel Seliger, who leads the Higher Education Committee and is co-chairman of the House-Senate oversight panel, said there is no indication that the regents have violated any law. “Have they done something outside generally accepted principles of good governance?” said Seliger, R-Amarillo. “That’s the question.”
Meanwhile, a special House panel on transparency in state agency operations plans a hearing Tuesday concerning the relationship between the UT School of Law and the UT Law School Foundation. In the latest sign of turmoil at the UT System, the author of a report on that relationship, Barry Burgdorf, the system’s vice chancellor and general counsel, submitted his resignation last week, effective April 30.
Three well-placed sources told the American-Statesman that some regents wanted Burgdorf out because they felt his report went easy on Powers, who was the Law School dean when the foundation started doling out forgivable loans to faculty members.
Ralph K.M. Haurwitz has covered the University of Texas and other public universities since 2004 and has written extensively about their governing practices.