UT’s Powers gets a lecture but keeps his job

University of Texas President Bill Powers didn’t get fired Thursday by the Board of Regents. Nor did he get a vote of confidence.

Instead, Powers got a public dressing-down from UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, with instructions to improve trust, respect and communication in his dealings with regents and other system officials. The board took no action, and Powers gets to keep his job.

The high-drama moment came after a roughly five-hour, closed-door session in which regents discussed Powers’ employment and other matters concerning the 15-campus system. Whether nearly three years of tension and controversy involving the UT president and his bosses will soon become a distant memory, as board Chairman Paul Foster predicted, remains to be seen.

For his part, Powers sought to convey an upbeat tone despite what amounted to a lukewarm endorsement.

“It is very positive to get this behind us and move forward in addressing these issues that face our campuses and face the system,” Powers told reporters.

The developments came on a day of intense interest involving the employment status of another high-profile UT employee: football coach Mack Brown. UT officials have had discussions with Brown about stepping down from his post. If Brown does quit, prospective replacements might consider the turmoil involving Powers and his bosses before deciding whether to pursue the job.

It’s no secret that Cigarroa and Powers haven’t always seen eye to eye. A certain amount of tension between the chancellor and the president is routine inasmuch as both oversee large, complex organizations with sometimes-overlapping responsibilities.

But this was the first time that Cigarroa has publicly criticized the leader of the flagship campus, faulting Powers for “significantly strained” relationships with system officials. Although the chancellor didn’t detail the issues, the campus and the system have sparred on tuition, faculty productivity, fundraising, regents’ access to records and other matters.

“The main reason for the strain is that Bill and I would agree upon certain principles and then I would act on those principles, but then Bill Powers would often convey a message of misalignment, leading to conflict between UT System administration and the University of Texas at Austin,” Cigarroa said.

More recently, the chancellor said, Powers has “reached out to me” and improved his level of communication and respect. Cigarroa also noted that Powers enjoys strong support from students, faculty members, alumni and donors, adding that “a change in leadership” would jeopardize recruitment of a dean for the UT medical school that officials hope to open in 2016.

“In this context, understanding that I’m hopeful that this strained relationship can be improved, it is my recommendation as chancellor that Bill Powers should continue his appointment as president of the University of Texas at Austin,” Cigarroa said. “I believe it is in the best interest of the university.

“This continuation of appointment, however, would require good citizenship, respect for one another, a commitment to rebuilding trust among us, cooperation with the University of Texas System, as well as its systemwide initiatives and important inquiries, and the continued advancement of excellence,” the chancellor added.

Foster cited a “difficult relationship” between Powers on the one hand and some regents and system administrators on the other. At the same time, he said, Powers’ recent appointment as chairman of the Association of American Universities, a group of major research universities, is “a point of pride to all of us.”

“I’m optimistic about the future of UT-Austin, and I’m confident that all this controversy will soon be a distant memory,” Foster said.

The outcome for Powers was perhaps not as bad as he had feared, nor as good as he had hoped. Well-placed sources told the Statesman that some regents wanted to oust him while others were staunch supporters. Cigarroa considered submitting his own resignation if regents didn’t agree with his approach, according to one well-placed source.

Leslie Cedar, CEO of the Ex-Students’ Association, also known as the Texas Exes, said she was pleased with the outcome. “We’re glad that the board recognizes the need to keep him (Powers) in place,” Cedar said.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he hopes that Thursday’s developments “mark the end of the needless distractions and ill-advised conflicts that have inflicted too much damage on the university and our state.”

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