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UT's Reform-Minded Chairman at Center of Controversy

UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell asks the Board to support Chancellor Dr. Franciso Cigarroa at their Austin meeting on May 12, 2011.
Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune
UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell asks the Board to support Chancellor Dr. Franciso Cigarroa at their Austin meeting on May 12, 2011.

SAN ANTONIO — When Gene Powell first arrived at the University of Texas at Austin in 1964, it was on a scholarship to play offensive guard and defensive linebacker for the legendary coach Darrell K Royal.

“I was a very average to mediocre football player, and that’s probably being generous,” Powell, a real estate developer and South Texas native, recalled during an interview at his San Antonio office this week.

More than four decades later, Powell was asked to return to Austin — this time by Gov.Rick Perry, who needed a staunch ally and strong leader to support his reforms on the University of Texas System’s board of regents.

While Powell’s battles have moved from the field to the boardroom, his tenure as board chairman promises to be far more memorable than the time he spent on the gridiron.

Since he assumed his role in February 2011, the board has become ground zero for a fierce clash between competing visions for higher education in Texas, including two of Perry’s pet issues: how much degrees should cost, and how university faculty members should balance teaching and academic research.

The latest commotion came last week, when a Texas Monthlyblogpost suggested that Powell had asked Francisco Cigarroa, the chancellor of the University of Texas System, to recommend the firing of the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers. Though both Powell and Cigarroa deny the story, it triggered outrage among students, faculty and alumni.

“Do I like everything that’s said about me, or what’s been said about my board, and all the things that have been written? Of course not,” Powell said. “If you are going to run a large institution, and you are going to do things and change the way things have been done for a really long time, you are going to have some people really like it and some people who really don’t like it.”

Powell, who holds a master’s degree in finance from UT-Austin, said his guiding principle is to promote an affordable college education for Texas’ growing and diverse student population. It is an endeavor the governor is proud of, said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry.

“Quality and affordability can go hand in hand, and Gov. Perry trusts our higher education leaders to strike the right balance,” Frazier said in a statement. “The UT Board of Regents, under Powell’s leadership, has proved they understand this.”

But from the get-go, Powell has had trouble advancing his nontraditional approach without rousing opposition.

A few weeks after his fellow board members elected him chairman, Powell praised Perry’s call for universities to create bachelor’s degrees that cost only $10,000, saying there was nothing wrong with getting a Chevrolet Bel Air-quality education as opposed to a Cadillac-quality one.

The car analogy was not well received, and Powell later said that he had “sworn off metaphors in my house.”

Around the same time, he hired Rick O’Donnell, the former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, to serve as special adviser to the board.  O’Donnell questioned the value of academic research in higher education, a move that exacerbated fears that Powell’s leadership might — as concerned alumnus and Fort Worth attorney Gordon Appleman put it in a widely distributed letter — lead to “long-term, perhaps irreversible degradation in academic stature” of the state’s premier research university. O’Donnell was terminatedafter less than two months.

Then last May, an internal board memo was leaked that indicated Powell supported raisingenrollment at UT-Austin by 10 percent every year for four years, while simultaneously cutting tuition in half systemwide. Powell said the ideas in the memo were merely intended to start a conversation. “People during that time would hear about one discussion or another discussion and become very concerned that particular thing was going to get done,” he said.

Some prominent Texans, including former regents, chancellors and university presidents, were so concerned by the series of events that they formed the Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group dedicated to defending UT institutions from what it viewed as misguided reforms.

This month’s Texas Monthly post followed Powers’ public expression of disappointment with theregents’decision — which was backed by Perry — to freeze tuition at the flagship campus. The story sparked an outpouring of support for Powers, and sharp denunciations of Powell, whom opponents accused of carrying water for Perry, a graduate of Texas A&M University.

When Powell was asked this week what he thought of Powers’ tenure, he said that while the two men have a “cordial relationship,” it is the chancellor’s job to evaluate the president, not his.

The common criticism of the chairman is that he is an unwavering disciple of the governor, installed to hobble the university system, and UT-Austin, in particular.

Peter T. Flawn, a past president of UT-Austin, said that over the years he has “known liberal regents and conservative regents and that they have all had one thing in common: Notwithstanding political persuasion, they were dedicated to the advancement of the university.” But he said that has changed, the result of the board being so closely aligned with a governor he believes emphasizes access and cost in higher education over quality.

“When you cut tuition and increase enrollment and de-emphasize research, you start heading toward a big junior college instead of a top graduate research university,” he said.

Frazier said Perry believes saving costs and creating more affordable degree options are duties that university leaders owe students. “Those who throw in the towel before even trying subscribe to the same spendthrift mentality as Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Powell, meanwhile, rejects the notion that Perry is pulling the strings.

“The governor is a conservative Republican, I’m a conservative Republican, so you would assume our thoughts on things are very similar,” he said, adding that he thinks the notion that the governor — who appoints all the regents — gives specific directives to them is “a little ludicrous.”

And while the majority of the pushback Powell faces is from the flagship campus, he said he must take the broader view, not the “very UT-Austin-centric” one, as he considers his future as chairman. “I’ve got to be worried about what’s going on in Brownsville,” he said. “I’ve got to be worried about what’s going on in Edinburg, and El Paso, and Tyler and Permian Basin.”

Powell said he is a consensus-builder, despite the perception that the board he chairs is divided. With the support of the Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, the regents voted unanimously in August to approve a framework for the system’s future, one crafted by Cigarroa with significant input from task forces on productivity and online learning that Powell created. Powell said this framework — not any leaked memos — represents the system’s vision for the future.

Cigarroa said that although his working relationship with Powell did not start off smoothly, the two are now very much aligned.

“I had to get used to a much faster pace, a greater sense of urgency, a sense of not accepting the status quo and being as innovative as you can,” Cigarroa said of Powell. “I think he’s doing a great job.” 

Disclosure: Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

Reeve Hamilton has interned at The Nation and The Texas Observer, for which he covered the 2009 legislative session. Most recently, he was a desk assistant at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. A Houston native, he has a bachelor's degree in English from Vanderbilt University.
Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.