State senators sharply questioned three nominees to the University of Texas System Board of Regents on Monday regarding a long-running controversy about governance of the Austin flagship and the job security of its president, Bill Powers.
One senator said during the confirmation hearing that he would vote against the nominees because he believes they are “on a mission” to dismiss Powers. But several other senators said they were pleased by the nominees’ assurances that they had no such intentions.
Nominations Committee Chairman Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said the panel would vote late Monday or Tuesday on Paul Foster, Ernest Aliseda and Jeff Hildebrand. The full Senate would then take up the nominations.
Foster, an El Paso businessman, has been nominated by Gov. Rick Perry for a second, six-year term on the UT board. Aliseda, a lawyer in McAllen, and Hildebrand, a Houston businessman, would be new regents replacing James Dannenbaum and Prentis Gary, who have been supportive of Powers.
The hearing punctuated more than two years of controversy that began with Perry’s appointment of Regents Brenda Pejovich, Wallace Hall Jr. and Alex Cranberg, and the regents’ election of Gene Powell as chairman.
Tensions between those four of the nine regents and the Austin campus have flared on such matters as graduation rates, fundraising, faculty productivity and tuition. At the same time, however, the board and the campus have worked together to advance plans for a medical school in Austin.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he almost always defers to the governor on appointments but would make an exception this time because he senses an effort to dismiss Powers. “I believe you’ve got your mind made up,” he told the nominees. “You’re on a mission.”
The nominees said they would abide by current UT board’s policy of dismissing a campus president only upon the recommendation of the UT System chancellor, who oversees the 15 academic and health institutions. Legislation to require that approach has been approved by the House and Senate, but Perry hasn’t said whether he intends to sign or veto it.
The most aggressive questions were directed at Foster. He said he would “probably vote in favor” of Powers if the regents took a vote of confidence in him. But Foster revised that a few minutes later to say that he would support the UT president.
“He can be difficult,” Foster said. “That may be just because he’s a lawyer — no offense. He’s been a challenge to the board.”
Under questioning from state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Foster said he had been remiss in failing to communicate with alumni, students, faculty members and other defenders of Powers, but he pledged to do so if his reappointment is confirmed. He also said that, if elected chairman by fellow regents, he would work closely with other regents to “significantly reduce” demands for data from the Austin campus and the investigative approach taken by some of them to its operations.
“I don’t know for certain that the chair of the board has that authority,” Foster said.
He said some of the blame for the controversy lies with what he called a well-orchestrated public relations campaign that seems to ramp up “to put the regents in their place” whenever Powers feels pressure.
Indeed, a group of alumni, donors and higher education leaders has been active in defending the campus and its president and hired a public relations firm to assist in its communications with the news media and the public.
Melinda Perrin, a member of the operating committee for the group, known as the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, said it doesn’t take orders from Powers.
State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he hadn’t received one call or email in support of the regents. “Maybe the problem isn’t Bill Powers,” Eltife said. “Maybe it’s the regents.”