Texas Austin president Bill Powers battles ‘July 4 coup’

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

July 7, 2014

Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, enjoys the backing of student, faculty and alumni leaders. He has been held in high regard by university leaders nationally, serving as chair of the board of the Association of American Universities.

But his days as president may be numbered. Reports started circulating on Friday - in what faculty critics are calling a “July 4 coup” - that Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System, had told Powers to either resign or face dismissal by the Board of Regents. The reports said that Powers has said that he is willing to talk about a retirement plan, but not to quit immediately. While UT system and Austin officials are not commenting on the reports, two anonymous sources with knowledge of the discussions confirmed to Inside Higher Ed both the ultimatum given to Powers and his response.

Faculty leaders are demanding that Cigarroa and the board stop trying to oust Powers, and have called a special faculty meeting for later this week to plot strategy. Numerous social media campaigns have been launched, some of which are linked to from the Twitter hashtag #savebillpowers. Some in Texas hope they can replicate the type of campaign that saved the job of Teresa Sullivan, who was fired and then reinstated by the board of the University of Virginia two years ago. In that case and in the case of Powers, a board moved against a president whom faculty and students wanted to retain.

Powers has been clashing for years with regents who are close to Governor Rick Perry, a Republican who is in his last year of office. Two years ago, Powers survived a push to fire him.

As UT Austin president, Powers has defended the university and its faculty members from criticisms from the governor’s allies, who have questioned the value of research and graduate programs that do not bring in outside dollars (in other words, non-science research). He has also defended the need for tuition increases, which have been opposed by Perry. Powers has also been a strong defender of affirmative action in higher education, notably in defending the university’s admissions practices all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Anger over the move against Powers extends well beyond Texas. Hunter Rawlings III, president of the AAU, has issued a statement backing Powers.

“I thought the State of Texas had in the past two years reached the outer limit of political intrusion into academic institutions, but apparently not: now a board appointed by a lame duck governor, and, astonishingly, a lame duck chancellor, are threatening to oust a highly accomplished and popular president of Texas’ flagship university, and a national leader in higher education,” Rawlings said.

“This lengthy battle has been extremely corrosive, and clearly damages one of the nation’s great research universities. Believe me, faculty members and researchers and graduate students across the country know what is transpiring in Texas: the complete politicization of higher education. This latest fiasco makes a bad situation much worse.”

Supporters of Powers have also created an online petition to back him. “During his tenure, President Powers has advanced UT Austin in remarkable ways including reforming our core curriculum, creating the first medical school at a tier one university in over 50 years, and successfully leading a three billion dollar capital campaign,” says the petition.

It notes that, like previous moves against Powers, this one is coming in the summer, “a deliberate attempt by the Board of Regents to hide from the university community while so many are away for the summer”.

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