Senate committee interrogates UT regent nominees on Powers

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Members of the Senate Nominations Committee interrogated three nominees to the UT System Board of Regents on whether there was any plan to fire UT President William Powers Jr. for two hours Monday morning.

Committee members took turns questioning nominees Ernest Aliseda, Jeffrey Hildebrand and current UT regent Paul Foster, who was reappointed by Gov. Rick Perry, on how they felt about Powers' leadership and whether there are plans to force the president out of office.

Foster acknowledged the rift between the board and Powers, but denied any conspiracy or hidden agenda to fire the president. In recent months, the board has been accused of trying to micromanage UT-Austin and force Powers out. 

“Every day of my life I hear someone talk about the termination of Bill Powers, but what I’m saying is it’s never been discussed by the board,” Foster said.

Regents are appointed by Perry and must be approved by the Senate. Aliseda is a graduate of Texas A&M University, works as an attorney for Loya Insurance Group and acts as a municipal judge for the city of McAllen. Hildebrand graduated from UT-Austin and is the CEO of Hilcorp Energy Co.

Foster has been been on the board since 2007 and is the current vice chairman. All three have contributed money to Perry over the years.

If approved, Aliseda, Hildebrand and Foster would serve until Feb. 1, 2019. The committee will meet again today to question the regents before voting.

“If I had to vote this morning I would vote no because I don’t want to play any role in the ousting of Bill Powers,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

Foster said he believed in Powers, but has issues with Powers being stubborn by not working with the board.

“He has been very difficult for the regents to work with,” Foster said. “My concern is that in some instances the controversies and issues surrounding him are so overwhelming and so significant it frustrates the whole process and detriments the entire system.”

Foster said every time some issue with Powers comes up there is a very organized campaign of public outcry, including a flood of phone calls and editorials, that frustrate the regents.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Juddith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, led the charge in cross-examining the regents. Watson asked Foster how he would vote if asked to take a vote of confidence in the president. Foster said he would vote in favor of Powers.

Watson also brought up an email from UT regent Alex Cranberg, in which Cranberg said Powers was trying to be a hero figure instead of trying to get things done.

Zaffirini asked the nominees to each name five specific steps they would take to close the rift between the board and Powers. Some nominees said they would meet with UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and the regents to establish the goals they want to accomplish.

Nominees also said they would meet with Powers to understand his side in the controversy and meet with the students and alumni groups that support him.

Zaffirini said any plan to fire Powers would be detrimental to UT and the state.

“If Bill Powers were fired, all hell would break loose,” she said.

Correction: This article has been updated to correctly attribute a quote to Paul Foster, not William Power Jr.