Bill Powers stepping down as UT president next year

Bill Powers speaks after announcing he will resign as UT president. (Paul Shelton/KXAN)
Bill Powers speaks after announcing he will resign as UT president. (Paul Shelton/KXAN)

AUSTIN (AP) — After years of clashes with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the group that oversees the University of Texas System, the president of its flagship Austin campus reached a resignation deal Wednesday that will keep him on the job until June 2015.

University of Texas President Bill Powers’ exit agreement comes after system Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa met with Powers last week and urged him to resign effective in October or risk being fired. Powers offered to quit next June, a deal that Cigarroa accepted after Powers’ allies on campus and in the state Capitol rallied behind him.

Powers told the faculty council Wednesday, “This is a plan that makes sense for me personally and my wife Kim. I think it makes sense for the University of Texas.”

UT Provost Gregory Fenves believes the groundswell for Powers bought him time, “I think the sense of faculty supporting Bill had a big effect coming to this resolution.”

Powers had pleaded to stay on the job to finish a $3 billion fundraising campaign, aid the startup of the university’s new medical school and help guide the university through state budget negotiations in the 2015 legislative session.

Powers said he met with Cigarroa and board Chairman Paul Foster to reach the deal, which was announced by the University of Texas System at the same time a school provost told a faculty meeting.

GOING IN-DEPTH // Powers’ work

  • Since 2006, the Campaign For Texas, which Powers championed, has raised $2.92 billion. That’s just shy of the overall goal of $3 billion.
  • That money could help fund research projects and schools, including the Dell Medical School. Powers, along with a host of other officials, pushed for the medical school in Austin.
  • And in the last few years, he led UT’s defense of its diversity system. Part of that is the ’10 percent rule’, and the use of race among admission factors. The U.S Supreme Court kicked the Fisher v. University of Texas case back to the lower courts. The court said affirmative action programs need to be strictly reviewed, but did not outlaw the programs.

“I’m delighted with this,”  Powers said.

Powers has led the 50,000-student Austin campus since 2006. He fought with governor-appointed regents over tuition and graduation rates and other higher-education policies, and had survived previous attempts to fire him.

Powers has been a popular figure among students, faculty and state lawmakers, who rallied to his defense this week with warnings that firing him would harm the university’s reputation. Powers is chairman of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of top private and public research institutions. One alumni group had planned a pro-Powers rally outside the Board of Regents meeting Thursday, where his employment is still on the agenda.

Martha Hilley, a UT music professor for 32 years, was delighted with the arrangement. “You don’t like to see a friend hurt and he’s taken more than his share. This is great.”

UT student body president Kori Rady was among those who organized a rally for Powers scheduled for Thursday. It has since been canceled.

“It was his leadership,” Rady said. “The ability to work with people and look them in the eye. it’s a really special, unique ability.”

On Monday, Cigarroa had described his relationship with Powers as “fractured” and cited a lack of trust between Powers and the regents. In accepting the deal that keeps Powers on the job another year, Cigarroa called him “an admired leader who, as I’ve said before, has advanced the University in many ways.”

Powers has had several high-profile clashes with Perry and the regents over higher-education policies. One regent, Wallace Hall, is facing possible impeachment and removal from office over his relentless pursuit of university records and questions over Powers’ leadership.

Cigarroa recently called for an external investigation into Hall’s questions about whether Powers and some state lawmakers exerted undue influence over school admissions. The House panel investigating Hall had told the regents not to question potential witnesses — including Powers — during their investigation.

Hall did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Perry, who has defended Hall, is not running for re-election, and Powers’ supporters had suggested the latest attempt to push him out was a last-ditch effort to fire him before the governor leaves office in January.

Cigarroa had denied any political motivations to get Powers out.

“It is, however, a time for an orderly change in leadership. While ultimately productive, the past years have not been without struggle and, at times, conflict and controversy,” Cigarroa said. “I truly believe that it is time for a fresh start.”

Cigarroa also is leaving. He announced his resignation last January, but his departure date has not yet been set.

In a statement, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education said it was glad that officials “were able to come together and put the interests of our great university first by allowing a thoughtful, responsible and orderly transition of leadership.” The coalition, which was formed in 2011 to push back at some of Perry’s reform efforts and includes some of the UT’s top financial donors, has supported Powers.

Anne Neal, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said Powers’ resignation is the “right decision, but it comes too late.”

“When boards and presidents aren’t working together, it is time for a new leader. It would have been better for Texans and the university had Powers stepped down immediately and acknowledged the breakdown in communications and trust critical to a productive partnership,” Neal said.

Powers was dean of the Texas law school before becoming president and said he intends to return to teaching there.

“Being the president of the University of Texas has been the highest professional honor of my life,” Powers said. “I love the students, faculty and alumni. I’m indebted for their support.”

Full message from the president to UT family:

Dear members of the University of Texas family,

I’m delighted to inform you that I will be serving as president of The University of Texas at Austin through the 2014–2015 academic year and the coming legislative session, after which I will return to teaching and my faculty position in the Law School. Kim and I have spoken for some time about making a transition next year.

I am deeply grateful to Chairman Foster and Chancellor Cigarroa for their leadership of The University of Texas System and for working together on this plan. It is truly in the best interest of the university, our students, faculty, staff and alumni. It will allow me to continue to build on our student success initiatives, complete our $3 billion capital campaign, and bring the Dell Medical School closer to reality over the next year while ensuring a smooth transition to my successor. It will also allow me to work with elected officials in the 84th Texas Legislature.

Most of all, I want to thank all of you for your tireless support of our university. Serving as president of The University of Texas at Austin has been the highest honor of my life. Even more, the friendship and support of alumni and friends has been a great blessing for me, Kim, and our family.

Thank you and Hook ’em!

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