University of Texas: That’s the odor of favoritism you smell


POWERS-UNPLUGGED? Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa has reportedly told UT President Bill Powers (pictured) he’s not long for the campus.

By William Murchison | Special to

A university president who puts himself in danger of being fired summarily is likely a president who needs…well, not necessarily firing but certainly an earnest talking-to.

The talking-to that UT-Austin’s Bill Powers hasn’t gotten from a UT establishment enamored of his gifts – he has many, including fund-raising skill – explains Powers’ present plight. Quit or be shown the door when the Board of Regents meets on Thursday: such is the president’s choice, as laid out by UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who seems pretty much to have had it with the controversy always swirling around the president’s door.

For this regrettable state of affairs, President Powers deserves an impressive share of responsibility. But certainly not the whole helping. Powers’ enablers include political and academic leaders convinced that the president’s critics are a bunch of rustic boobs, deserving the back of his imperial hand rather than some efforts at outreach; some efforts at simple listening; some efforts to respond, in the spirit of stewardship over a vast and much-beloved public institution.

Convinced that Powers was carrying their university (and mine) to unprecedented heights of achievement and prestige, the UT establishment spread its cloak over every mud puddle he encountered at curbside. Ah, Your Wonderfulness, how well you’re looking today! Are there any undefended portions of your back that we might cover? So it has gone without interruption for years now.

The pro-Powers Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, on its website, flays “extremist special-interest groups” that array themselves against “a university that is purportedly rampant with corruption and fiscal mismanagement.” We learn from the coalition that “a propaganda machine” (evidently unlike any propaganda machine connected with the UT establishment) is “attempting to malign the integrity of the elected public officers who have the responsibility to investigate.”

To investigate what? This is where the Powers affray gets really interesting. The Powers lobby is up in arms over Regent Wallace Hall’s Freedom of Information requests for information the University finds taxing and time-consuming. By provoking the UT establishment, Hall earned the disproportionate response of a legislative investigation aimed at possibly impeaching him.

There are two points of wonderment here. The first is that no appointed Texas official has ever before been impeached and removed from office. Why begin with Hall? Because his inquiries offended Powers’ dignity and implied immunity from public censure? That is one possible construction that can be placed on the matter.

The second point of wonderment concerns the fruits that Hall’s information searches produced. As’s Jon Cassidy has reported, meticulously and informatively, the children of various lawmakers gained admission to UT’s prestigious law school despite substandard standardized test scores.

The odor of favoritism is in the air. Do the well-connected, when it comes to law school admission, enjoy an edge over the less-well-connected? Can a legislator with an academically challenged child write a letter that opens law school doors as if by magic? These are questions requiring answers, you might suppose.

Concerning Hall’s records search, Cassidy writes: “[I]f investigators aren’t given complete access to private records, they aren’t going to get to the bottom of anything. They have a legitimate educational purpose and should not be impeded in any way, certainly not for specious claims of privacy.”

To put it another way, why wouldn’t UT – for the sake of its lofty reputation – want to facilitate a legitimate (are not regents “legitimate” servants of the public?) search for the facts? Why wouldn’t the administration want to know what goes on? Why not meet Hall at the door with arms wide open instead of with stares and glares? Why not some gratitude toward a regent just trying to do his job, on behalf of the taxpayers?

Beyond the Wallace Hall matter, the legend of Powers the Conqueror, so assiduously cultivated by the UT establishment, is open at the very least to question. I am well aware of what may be said about anonymous sources, but I commend a long post on the website of the National Association of Scholars, written by a UT faculty member self-identified as Publius Audax (“Course Correction: It’s Time for UT-Austin’s President to Step Down”). I think we might understand why a faculty member challenging a variety of liberal assumptions in today’s on-campus ideological climate prefers to speak as it were with Roman tragedian’s mask over face.

Audax lays out 10 grievances concerning the Powers regime. Among them: the sharp rise in administrative salaries (86 percent at the university level during Powers’ first five years) amid a 22 percent rise in tuition; a confusing welter of new courses, such as “Conspiracy Theories,” “Visualizing Cuba,” and “The Art of the Uncanny”; a pronounced on-campus tilt against conservatives; “increasing ideological uniformity of the faculty”; and growing dependence on federal grant money.

The foregoing reflect subjective preferences. Which should be fine – can’t preferences, Audax’s or anyone else’s, in an environment of academic inquiry, be debated? It gets harder and harder as the enthusiasms of the UT establishment coincide ever more neatly with those of the president. We’re now told by the Texas Exes that a “forced resignation or firing would be a travesty.” Would it? (The authors should, by the way, look up “travesty” in the dictionary – it doesn’t mean what they think it does.) No outcome from the ongoing Powers struggle is going to be pleasant.

The saddest thing to contemplate is that it didn’t have to be this way. Why couldn’t Powers just sit down and find out what his critics had to say? He might have discovered they aren’t the rubes and bumpkins his camp followers make them out to be.

Isn’t it possible to love UT without buying into the brusque, uncompromising approach of the present administration?

Apparently not.

William Murchison is an author, syndicated columnist, and former associate editor of The Dallas Morning News.