Editor’s note: This essay follows up on a previous article by the same author, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin who requested to publish under a pseudonym. Very soon after we published the author’s earlier essay giving 10 reasons why UT president Bill Powers should step down, President Powers did step down.
While the National Association of Scholars does not take an official position on his resignation, we uphold the principles of fairness and integrity in college admissions, and we advocate public accountability for the leaders of today’s colleges and universities.
On May 9th, in an essay posted on this web site, I called for Bill Powers, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, to step down. On July 10th, Powers submitted his resignation, effective June 2, 2015. In the intervening two months, events unfolded at a dizzying pace.
Of the ten reasons I offered for the fitness of a Powers resignation, it was #10 that proved most relevant, namely, the failure of the Powers administration to maintain transparency and a reputation for integrity. This failure took several forms but most prominent was the appearance of political influence-peddling concerning admission to UT’s prestigious law school. In late May, the UT System Chancellor’s office released its preliminary report, concluding that it was a “widely common practice among legislators” to ask the university’s president to intercede for these applicants, and that “it is not unreasonable to conclude that these letters of recommendation influenced the admissions decisions for some or all of these applicants.”
This scandal was uncovered due to the dogged efforts of one of the UT Regents, Wallace Hall, efforts that (ironically) made him the target of a legislative inquiry, putting him in danger of being the first unelected official in Texas history to be subjected to impeachment. As it turns out, some of the legislators involved in the official persecution of Hall were also implicated in the admissions scandal.
The tide began to turn as a series of Wall Street Journal editorials defended Hall and his efforts to bring the truth to light. Jon Cassidy, a conservative blogger in Houston, uncovered statistics that provided strong circumstantial evidence that preferential treatment of legislators and their friends and children had resulted in a significant uptick in failures of UT Law School graduates to pass the Bar examination. The tipping point was reached when the left-leaning Texas Monthly published a surprisingly positive piece about Hall.
According to Texas Monthly, on July 2nd the UT System Chancellor Cigarroa demanded that Powers resign immediately or be fired at the meeting of the Board of Regents on July 10th. Texas Monthly provided an explanation for this demand:
But a well-placed source in the UT System said the real reason Cigarroa turned on Powers was because an individual with ‘intimate knowledge of UT’s admissions program’ met with Cigarroa after the Office of General Counsel’s report was released. This individual said the lawyers in the Office of General Counsel had been misled by Powers and his deputies when they told the lawyers that they didn’t intervene in admissions. According to this individual, they sometimes went so far as to order officials in the admissions office to accept particular students—a charge that, if true, could explain Cigarroa’s decision to ask for Powers’s resignation.
The next significant blow to Powers’ reputation came from a totally unexpected quarter: Charles Miller, former chairman of the Board of Regents and quintessential higher education insider. Unlike Hall and the other current members of the Board, Miller was appointed by George W. Bush and not current Gov. Rick Perry. Miller wrote a stinging rebuke of Powers, published by the Texas Tribune, a Texas newspaper partly owned by UT which had up to that point consistently defended Powers. Miller wrote:
University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers’ tenure has been marked by strife between him and UT System staff and the UT System Board of Regents. This preceded the current board and the current chancellor.
According to reports from sources close to the UT System, Powers has been actively insubordinate to the chancellor and system staff. Not only does this violate any condition of institutional collaboration at the system, but it also makes impossible the effective resolution of policy differences.
Because this behavior violates any standard of employment responsibilities, Powers must go.
In the end, Powers and Cigarroa reached a compromise: instead of stepping down immediately, Powers offered to tender a letter of resignation to be effective on June 2, 2015, after the end of Gov. Perry’s term (in January) and after the end of the upcoming regular session of the Texas legislature (which sits for six months every two years). Like most compromises, this will not satisfy either side. If Powers is innocent of wrongdoing, then he should demand a full-throated vindication; if he is not, he should be fired. Powers has suggested that he had been intending to retire at that point for personal reasons, but he had made no public statements to that effect. This is probably the best result that defenders of reform could realistically hope for at this stage, given the strong support for Powers among legislators, administrators, faculty members, and establishment insiders, including former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a staunch Perry opponent who was recently named the president of the alumni association.
Before the scandal had broken, Chancellor Cigarroa had announced his intention to resign this year. On Tuesday (July 29th) the Board of Regents announced that it has designated Admiral McRaven, the former commander of the Navy Seals, as the sole finalist to replace Cigarroa. It seems likely that McRaven will continue to press for a full investigation and disclosure of influence-peddling in the admissions process at UT, as well as continuing questions about Powers’ role in creating and maintaining a controversial program of ‘forgivable loans’ to Law School professors and administrators from the UT Law School Foundation. In addition, the newly-elected legislature promises to be run by insurgents with a particular antipathy toward the insider cronyism that has characterized Texas politics for the last century, and the Republican candidate for Attorney General has expressed an interest in ensuring full transparency in the operations of higher education in the state. It is by no means a sure thing that Powers will in fact serve until June 2nd.