Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, has seen his leadership endorsed by the Legislature and questioned by some members of his governing board. While the one is gratifying and the other challenging, neither changes the way he approaches his job on a day-to-day basis, he said Saturday.
“I’m going to go back on Monday and make the university a better place,” Powers told news reporters in San Antonio. “It’s a big university. It’s critical that we continue to make progress.”
Powers made the comments after a speech to the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors convention.
Although he is a former dean of the UT School of Law, Powers declined to offer a legal opinion on an effort by the chairman of the UT System Board of Regents to withhold certain documents from members of the Legislature investigating board governance, particularly as it relates to the Austin flagship.
On Friday, regents Chairman Gene Powell wrote to state Attorney General Greg Abbott seeking permission to withhold records that could impair investigations, abrogate the attorney-client privilege or thwart the board’s efforts to perform its duties.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who is among the lawmakers seeking records, said Friday evening that she had not encountered such resistance before from an executive branch agency or institution of higher learning in 26 years in office.
Some lawmakers are concerned that a few UT regents want to oust Powers. As a result, a Senate panel voted this week to limit the powers of boards of regents, including their ability to fire campus presidents. The House, meanwhile, approved tight restrictions on the UT board’s ability to spend money on system administration and campus investigations.
Powers seemed to downplay those developments, saying there is considerable unrelated business involving the campus and the UT System, “and we’re all moving forward on this.”
The UT president acknowledged, however, that there has been friction between him and the board on “how to navigate the stresses and challenges” facing the university and higher education institutions generally. He said one major challenge is holding down costs.
“Productivity is always on our minds,” Powers said, citing among other initiatives an effort to boost the four-year graduation rate, currently about 52 percent, to 70 percent by 2016.
At the same time, Powers said, some costs are simply not under the university’s control, such as compensation among major research universities for top faculty members. In the same way, he said, a motorist wouldn’t have success offering a cut-rate fee for gasoline. The price at the pump is the price.
“There is fierce competition for the best faculty,” he said.