Attacks strengthen UT board’s resolve

UT Austin Tower

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

AUSTIN — The supporters of University of Texas President Bill Powers won a Pyrrhic victory this week in getting their man a little more time in the job.

Their over-the-top campaign, which frequently degenerated into insult and abuse, has strengthened the resolve of the Board of Regents to install policies and leadership resistant to political influence.

Until this past week, there was something of a 4-4 split on the board, with Chairman Paul Foster as the swing vote, at least regarding the question of Powers’ employment.

Going forward, I’d expect to see more of a 6-3 split, with Regents Steve Hicks and Bobby Stillwell in the Powers camp, as ever, joined perhaps by Jeffrey Hildebrand, who tends to express impatience with the various controversies.

Foster made his opinion clear at the board meeting, telling members of the alumni association to “think twice about how harmful and disrespectful” some of their lobbying had become, and telling the Legislature, “we respectfully ask that you allow us to do our jobs unimpeded.”

“My whole point is that the board has a role and it’s not political,” he said afterward. “We’re not politicians.”

Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced extensive new admissions policies Thursday, including safeguards against outside influence and conflicts of interest, clear standards for admission and admissions committees as a safeguard against collusion

“Letters of recommendation that are not submitted through the formal application process are not to be considered as part of the applicant’s file,” Cigarroa said.

An investigation by his office earlier this year into backdoor appeals of that sort found that “it is not unreasonable to conclude that these letters of recommendation influenced the admissions decisions for some or all of these applicants.”

Cigarroa also alluded to a leak by Powers last month that he saw as a betrayal, which was the catalyst for this last showdown. As we reported earlier this week, Powers apparently leaked some emails between Cigarroa and Regent Wallace Hall that Cigarroa had forwarded to him in confidence.

“From my perspective, it’s an issue of can we trust each other with communication without it going viral,” Cigarroa said Thursday. “It’s very hard to have a productive relationship when a chancellor and president can’t have discussions on sensitive matters.”

That leak last month came just before a whistleblower came forward to tell Cigarroa that Powers had misled him about influencing admissions decisions. As Texas Monthly reported Thursday:

“(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 whistleblower also told Cigarroa that the letters of recommendation were far less important than phone calls in adjusting admissions decisions, according to a well-placed source.

Cigarroa also said Thursday that he had not asked Powers to resign over admissions favoritism, as “the facts on this are not known.”

The complete outside investigation into admissions favoritism that Cigarroa has authorized enjoys broad support among members of the board, but state House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is said to be angry about it. So Cigarroa sent him a message by taking issue with a Wall Street Journal editorial that placed the blame for string-pulling on lawmakers.

Such letters have been written “for decades,” Cigarroa said.

“This is not the main issue of concern to me, as the requirements I’ve outlined above will correct this practice. What concerns me is how external input outside the formal admissions process is handled administratively within the University of Texas.”

Both Foster and Cigarroa mentioned promises by Powers not to obstruct the investigation. Last year, one of Powers’ officers routinely objected to requests for information by Hall and delayed production of records.

If that investigation produces evidence substantiating the whistleblower’s claim that Powers lied about his involvement in reversing admissions decisions, Powers could still be fired well before his June 2, 2015, departure date.

Any firing of that sort would depend on the resolve of the chancellor. Cigarroa may have caved on his now-famous July 4 ultimatum to Powers to quit or be fired, but the UT System is likely to have a new chancellor by September, and the board is not looking for a soft touch like Cigarroa’s.

Cigarroa also announced revisions to policy on the annual giveaway of Longhorns football tickets and luxury suite access to politicians, their staffs, and the school’s donors, which costs around $400,000 a year. The policy will be kept mostly intact, although the standing invitations to luxury suites issued to a few highly influential politicians will be discontinued.

Politicians who’ve gotten a standing invitation include Gov. Rick Perry (who declines), Straus, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, state Sens. Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffirini and Kel Seliger, and Reps. Dan Branch and Jim Pitts, plus a few others.

All but Perry are vociferous Powers defenders. The cost of entertaining the politicians is substantial. For example, since at least 2010, the university has provided five luxury box tickets to all Longhorns home games to Zaffirini, her husband, her son and two of their friends, which are worth about $30,000 a year.

The problem at the University of Texas goes beyond one man. It can be seen in the cynicism of a community willing to ignore flagrant abuses of class privilege. It can be seen in all the tiresome quotations of Casablanca one finds in comments sections — “I’m shocked, shocked” to find that politicians get special treatment in admissions. “Everybody does it.” This is not sophistication. It’s rationalization. If class privilege is inevitable, then nobody is obligated to confront injustice.

But that inevitability is just an assumption. The board is clearly ready to challenge that assumption. I think they’ll start by finding a chancellor and a president who are unimpressed by politicians. And if that works, who knows how many schools it will influence? Maybe it is just a marketing slogan, but can’t it also be true: What starts here changes the world.

UT just needs a reason to believe it.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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