University of Texas officials took steps last week to heal deep wounds oozing from highly publicized clashes, but the damage to UT’s national reputation could take several years to mend, experts say.
The tumult comes at a crucial moment in UT’s history. The Board of Regents is seeking a new chancellor to lead the system and is preparing to launch a search for the president of its flagship campus. The controversies could make it harder to find the best candidates to fill those nationally high-profile positions, search firm executives and other experts say.
Moving forward, they said, it is crucial that the board eschew politics and meddling; promote harmony between the UT System and the Austin campus; and choose proven leaders respected by academics.
At the same time, ideological and political forces see a new opening to press their goals at UT-Austin after Wednesday’s announcement that campus President Bill Powers will step down in June. Experts say choosing a politician for president or chancellor isn’t a good idea.
The perception nationally is that “there is too much political interference with higher education in Texas,” said former Board of Regents Chairman Scott Caven. Of the six university systems in Texas, all but two — UT and the University of Houston System — are led by former politicians. At UT, politics have played out most prominently in recent years with Gov. Rick Perry supporting a conservative think tank’s push for faculty to spend more time teaching.
Perry has appointed all nine UT regents as well as a non-voting student regent. He also has backed UT System Regent Wallace Hall Jr., who faces possible impeachment after his unprecedented examination of dozens of boxes of UT-Austin documents in what some legislators and two fellow regents called a “witch hunt” to oust Powers.
Regent Steve Hicks said Friday that he had the same fears as those raised by experts about finding the best candidates, but the search for chancellor hasn’t borne that out. “I have been really surprised with the quality of people who have come forward,” he said.
More universities have become political battlegrounds in recent years, but UT especially so, “maybe partly because it’s located in Austin and the legislators are there,” said former UT-Austin President Robert Berdahl, who has led the Association of American Universities, which represents UT and 61 other research schools. “There have been repeated efforts to reshape the university” by outside groups.
A change in leaders presents another, much-desired chance for the free-market promoting Texas Public Policy Foundation to press anew its higher education reform plan in Texas. Perry will be leaving office in January, and Caven and others said they don’t expect the next governor to take the same approach, although in conservative Texas, the foundation does have influence.
“I hope the attention that this has drawn can … help people recognize the systemic crisis that exists in higher education,” said Thomas Lindsay, director of the foundation’s Center for Higher Education. “We can do something about it.”
UT is a great place to start, he said, because of its stature and the need his organization sees to raise the quality of undergraduate education and reduce tuition.
Lindsay, who was a dean and provost at the University of Dallas, says he sees a philosophical difference about the direction of higher education and a need to hold campuses accountable. Boards of regents “have the right and duty to oversee everything,” Lindsay said.
“My fear is, regardless of what happens to Wallace Hall, the message sent to regents is very clear: Ask tough questions and you will be vilified. You will face possible impeachment and criminal charges,” he said.
Others said the board’s role is to set a vision and broad policy, not micromanage or kowtow to the politically powerful.
The recent clashes mark the fourth major political intervention at UT in the past 100 years, according to former Texas Higher Education Commissioner Kenneth Ashworth, author of the 2011 book, “Horns of a Dilemma: Coping with Politics at the University of Texas.”
As a former UT System official in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Ashworth saw firsthand the fallout from the actions of a politically motivated regent when Frank Erwin sought to control UT. Ashworth couldn’t proclaim Texas more political than other systems, but he said, “I would challenge any historian to find four major interventions in a century at a university.”
The current chapter is a dark one in UT’s history, Ashworth said. “A university takes decades to build, and it can be ruined in a few years.”
Against that backdrop, Caven and others expect the regents to attract candidates to UT’s nationally prestigious leadership posts but fear some of the best prospects won’t bother. The controversies include a fractured board and a dispute centered on communication and trust between Powers and UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.
“The best candidates don’t want to step into a situation where there’s that kind of distraction,” said Bill Funk, founder and president of a leading higher education search firm, R. William Funk and Associates in Dallas. “These positions are challenging enough in the best of circumstances.”
The Cigarroa-Powers conflict culminated Wednesday with officials announcing that Powers will resign June 2 — a move Powers said he desired. The chancellor had issued an ultimatum to Powers earlier this month: announce plans to resign in October or risk being fired by the board on July 10.
That resolution is good news for UT, said Caven, who played key roles in hiring Powers and Cigarroa. But, he added, “The impression everyone has is the University of Texas has been terribly damaged by this. I think it’s a black eye and will make it difficult, not just for UT, but for all universities in Texas to attract quality people.”
Funk said the board needs to be proactive in depoliticizing UT to hold onto good faculty as well.
“That nexus of politics and higher education is such a treacherous one,” Funk said. “We have a real opportunity in Texas because of the relative healthiness of our economy to really make progress from a higher education perspective. We’re frittering away that opportunity by this internecine battling.”
Cigarroa, wearied by the tumult and saying he desired to return to transplant surgery, announced his resignation in February.
UT System regents disclosed Wednesday they are getting close to choosing a chancellor and the search has been smooth. While that might be true, observers expect the board to have a smaller pool of candidates than in previous searches. Challenges in public higher education — including lower state funding and rising tuition — have made such jobs less appealing, they said, while internal warfare and political battles have added a daunting complication.
“It will take several years to repair” the damage, said Bill Spelman, president of William Spelman Executive Search in Webster, N.Y.
The new chancellor almost certainly will be in place before a campus president is selected and will aid in that search, with the board closing the deal, UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said.
Experts said they can’t imagine a president taking the job without knowing who the boss will be.
Sources told the Statesman last week that the short list includes two nationally prominent names: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Richard Fisher and Adm. William McRaven, chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command who directed the team that killed Osama Bin Laden.
Search firm executives, former university leaders and others said they believe an academician should be chosen as president of the UT-Austin campus. As for system chancellor, an academic is less critical, most said.
Spelman said he believes an academic chancellor “would be devoured.”
But “they don’t need a politician,” Spelman said. “They need someone who has experience in the running of an institution of higher education and an understanding of the politics in Texas.”
Having elected officials serve as chancellors injects more politics into the system, he said.
Berdahl said he has a strong preference for academicians as chancellors and presidents. “I don’t think just anybody can step in and manage General Motors, and I don’t think just anybody can manage the University of Texas,” he said.
Pressure to change
For some reason, chancellors and flagship presidents can be conflict-prone, Berdahl said.
Molly Corbett Broad of the American Council on Education said many universities are seeing a breakdown in shared governance between chancellors and presidents. The fraught relationship between Powers and Cigarroa is a bump in the road, she said, but she expects the rift to heal by the end of the next academic year.
At the same time, UT-Austin will compete for candidates against other premier research universities as many aging presidents retire, she said.
Regents need to be open to all types of leaders for the system and campus and be actively engaged in their selection, said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
“While an academic administration may be desirable, experience has shown it’s not essential. There are individuals in government, the military and other areas who have made outstanding presidents,” Neal said.
Regents board Chairman Paul Foster took an important step recently by saying that regents should not act as “lone rangers,” like Hall, Caven said. “Change cannot be forced from the outside.”
Andrea Gore, a UT-Austin pharmacy professor who does research in neuroscience and biomedicine, thinks it’s inevitable that those calling for more frugal spending will be heard. But she hopes the next UT president will embrace the importance of research to educating students. Further, the Dell Medical School is a “game changer” for its potential to use research to improve community health, she said.
Lindsay said the Texas Public Policy Foundation doesn’t oppose research. But faculty members who aren’t publishing regularly should be made to teach an extra class each semester, he said.
In addition, all students should be tested as freshmen and again as seniors to measure their progress at critical thinking and other complex skills on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, he said. The results of that test, which some education leaders call “significantly flawed,” should be published, he added.
His organization’s goal is to “be whatever help we can be,” he said. “That’s my deepest hope — that we can come together to recognize the crisis we face in higher education.”
Critics don’t disagree that Texas universities could improve.
“I think change is due in higher education,” said Caven, the former regent. “But it’s like turning around an ocean liner. You have to do it a step at a time and you have to have buy-in.”