Bill Powers, the president of the University of Texas-Austin, has announced that he will step down from his post in June 2015.
The announcement brings to a close a power struggle that has shaken the state in the past week, signalling the twilight of the eight-year reign of one of the most powerful figures in higher education.
The outcome is a compromise between Powers and University of Texas Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who had demanded that Powers depart by October or else find himself fired at Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting.
By serving for another year, Powers will be able to complete a major fundraising drive and ensure a smoother departure from office. Supporters of Powers at a UT-Austin faculty Wednesday applauded when the agreement was announced.
In addition to operating the flagship school of one of the U.S.’s largest university systems, Powers was also a figure on the national education stage, serving as the chairman of the Association of American Universities, a collection of the nation’s top research universities. Powers announced that after his departure he plans to take a sabbatical and then return to teaching at the university’s law school.
Powers has clashed several times with the university’s board of regents in the past, and even survived a previous effort to fire him in 2012, but the sudden ultimatum to resign or be fired still came as a surprise, and it is not currently known with certainty what prompted the board to act as it did.
“There was no single incident that prompted my decision to ask President Powers for his resignation last week, but a long history of issues with communication, responsiveness and a willingness to collaborate,” Chancellor Cigarroa said in Wednesday statement that was light on details.
Some have speculated that the board of regents moved when they did in order to ensure that a replacement president can be chosen while the board of regents is still primarily composed of individuals appointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. As part of Powers’ resignation, the board of regents is immediately launching a search for a replacement.
Perry had been a recurring foe of Powers, as the governor pushed for a variety of reforms within the Lone Star State’s public education system. Powers has resisted efforts by Perry to prevent annual tuition increases and to grade professors based on student evaluations. He has also opposed efforts criticism from Perry allies of academic research at the school in non-scientific disciplines, which don’t bring in much money for the school.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, a Texas conservative activist and writer who heads the group Empower Texans, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that Powers’ defenders are emphasizing his feuds with Perry as a form of “convenient revisionism.”
These feuds are “not really relevant” to Powers’ abrupt departure, he said. Many people besides Powers had resisted the governor on education without being targeted, and in any case, he said, most of Perry’s desired reforms had still been implemented.
“We got what we wanted,” Sullivan said. The real cause of Powers’ downfall, he said, was a loss of faith caused by repeated corruption probes.
“You’ve had not only a bad relationship between Bill Powers and the Board of Trustees…but there have also been over the last two years, emerged some real serious concerns about some scandals, of some at best inappropriate, at worst corrupt behavior in the Powers administration,” Sullivan said.
One of the scandals hurting Powers include alleged under-the-table payments to favored faculty members at the University of Texas School of Law, where Powers was once dean. While Powers claimed no involvement, the scandal was severe enough to bring down his successor.
More damaging is a recent probe by University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall, which investigated alleged instances of Texas state legislators improperly using their clout to win admission for otherwise unqualified students into UT-Austin. Perry has defended Hall’s actions as valiant truth-seeking, while supporters of Powers claim that Hall’s investigation is a witch hunt by Perry’s allies seeking to discredit the president.
According to Texas Monthly, shortly before Chancellor Cigarroa demanded Powers’ resignation, an official at the school told him that Powers’ administration had been misleading investigators regarding their involvement with controversial admission. If true, this claim could explain why the board turned so suddenly on Powers.
“Clearly, some kind of evidence has come forward that has made university officials feel now is the time Powers has to go,” Sullivan argued. He added that he hoped the resignation would not derail a wider investigation of possible corruption in the school’s admissions.
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