A day after state legislative leaders strongly signaled their support for University of Texas President Bill Powers, Senate leaders on Tuesday announced plans to hold hearings on reports that some UT regents are engaged in a power struggle to push Powers out.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who teared up Monday while publicly lauding Powers during the Senate session, said while the forums for the hearings haven’t been decided — either in separate House and Senate hearings or a joint legislative panel — “there will be hearings.”
In the past two years, Powers has clashed with regents on tuition increases and the faculty productivity, among other matters, and has faced increasing public questions by a few of them. Powers is thought to hold a slim majority of support on the nine-member Board of Regents.
“There will be a number of different subjects the Senate and House will want to look into,” Dewhurst said without elaboration.
Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said lawmakers want to know whether the regents are going beyond their policy-setting roles and are meddling in administrative and operations functions at the university, which should be Powers’ role.
“We want to know whether the regents are micromanaging the university to its detriment,” Seliger said.
He said regents will be called before whatever committee investigates that matter and investigates anonymous letters Dewhurst cited Monday as criticizing Powers and his family. The lieutenant governor said he had been told that those letters were trumpeted by one of the regents.
Dewhurst and Seliger said some of the allegations involve Powers’ private life dating back 30 years, to a time when Powers was teaching at UT. Powers, 66, has been president of the 52,000-student flagship school since 2006.
Asked about the letters, the content of which hasn’t been revealed, Seliger said: “We’ll either request or subpoena them when the time comes.” But he was emphatic: “We want to see the letters.”
Officials of the UT System and the Board of Regents didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding the letters.
Dewhurst said the investigation could be handled by existing Senate or House committees, a joint committee or a Senate-House legislative panel that worked on higher education issues last year.
In a statement to The Associated Press, UT spokesman Gary Susswein said: “President Powers appreciates all the support he’s received this week from the lieutenant governor and other lawmakers. The president will cooperate fully with the Legislature as it examines issues related to UT and higher education.”
Dewhurst said he expects details on the scope and focus of the inquiry to be firmed up in coming days.
On Monday, the Senate and the House approved congratulatory resolutions honoring Powers, as a show of legislative support for the UT chief.
In a dramatic and emotional statement during the Senate session, Dewhurst said Powers had been subjected to character assassination that ultimately threatens the state’s reputation. He also questioned whether the regents’ actions are undermining governance of the 15-campus system headquartered in Austin.
Seliger and other senators said Tuesday that there is active discussion about changing state law to keep university regents focused on policy and to block them from interfering in administrative decisions — even possibly sending to voters a constitutional amendment on the matter.
“If the regents have a problem with the president of the university who works for them, they can fire him … do it up front, not under the table,” Seliger said, echoing comments from other senators. “Simply making things tough on the president is irresponsible.”