Senators approve UT regent appointees

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Ernest Aliseda and Jeff Hildebrand to the Board of Regents in February, and he reappointed Paul Foster. The appointees have to wait till they are confirmed by the senate before they can begin serving.

The Senate Nominations Committee unanimously approved three nominees to the UT System Board of Regents Tuesday after putting them on the chopping block just one day ago and interrogating them about how they felt about UT-Austin President William Powers Jr.

McAllen Judge Ernest Aliseda, energy CEO Jeffrey Hildebrand and current UT Regent Paul Foster need to receive a two-thirds majority vote from the full Texas Senate before they are official regents.

Committee members vetted the nominees for four hours Monday, which officials said is the longest time spent considering nominees this session.

If they are approved, the three regents will play an important role in the ongoing power struggle between the board and Powers. All nominees were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, who has clashed with Powers on tuition prices and other matters.

Their terms would expire Feb. 1, 2019.

The board has been accused of micromanaging UT and plotting to force Powers out of office. Senators on Monday warned the nominees against planning to fire Powers or making his life difficult to try to force him to resign.

“I believe that any plan to fire Bill Powers, any plan to arrange an exit, graceful or otherwise, any plan to force him to resign, any plan to make him so miserable that he or his wife should decide he should resign, would be detrimental to the University of Texas, to our state,” said Sen. Juddith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

The three nominees denied any plan to oust Powers. Hildebrand said he was an independent thinker and would not have accepted the nomination if he was told he had to vote in a certain way.

Foster said although Powers was stubborn and difficult to work with, the board has never had any conversations on forcing him out. However, Foster said the board has discussed Powers voluntarily resigning at his own time.

“There is no conspiracy effort [to fire Powers] or hidden agenda that I’m aware of,” Foster said.

All nominees said they would work to fix the rift between Powers and the board if approved.

Earlier:

Members of the Senate Committee of Nominations put three nominees for the UT System Board on Regents on the spot Monday for four hours and hammered them with questions on the job security of UT President William Powers Jr.

Senators spent the majority of the meeting interrogating current UT Regent Paul Foster, who was reappointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, on whether there was any board plan to fire Powers or force him out of office. Legislators also expressed frustration at the public scandal between board and Powers and demanded regents move on.

All university regents are appointed by Perry and must be confirmed by the Senate. Nominations committee chairman Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said he expected to have a decision made by late Monday or Tuesday.

Foster acknowledged there was a rift between Powers and the board, and even said the regents – albeit informally - spoke about him voluntarily resigning.

“There have been discussions about him transitioning out at some point when he’s ready on his terms, not on anything else,” Foster said.

He said the board has never had any conversations on forcing Powers out.

Legislators asked nominees Ernest Aliseda and Jeffrey Hildebrand if they were brought in to join in the witchhunt against Powers. Both said they did not have any plans to fire the UT president.

All three nominees have donated to Perry over the years. Aliseda currently has two kids at UT-Austin and is a graduate of Texas A&M University. He is the managing attorney for the 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 on the board since 2007 and is the current vice chairman. If approved, they would serve until Feb. 1, 2019.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Juddith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, were some on the most outspoken members in Monday’s cross-examination. Watson asked Foster about an email sent last year by UT Regent Alex Cranberg, which criticizes Powers.

“I actually expect (Powers) to hold out an olive branch if he is smart and wants to accomplish something,” Cranberg said in the email. “I’m idealistic and keep forgetting that his agenda is egotistical, to be a hero figure and not a doer.”

Zaffirini praised Powers and said she believes there is an ongoing effort by the regents to fire Powers or force him to resign. She warned the regents against this, saying such a move would have a negative impact on UT’s reputation and on the state of Texas. 

“Do you understand that Bill Powers, the president of UT-Austin, is not only respected and admired, but I would dare say loved by members of legislature?” Zaffirini asked the nominees.

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

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 media coverage, which frustrates the regents. However, Foster said he is willing to move past the drama and work with Powers.  

Nominations Committee Chairman Hegar closed the meeting and urged the nominees to focus on the students and the UT System, not on the scandal between the board and Powers.

“Move beyond the controversy because I can tell you as a legislator, I’m tired of hearing about this issue,” Hegar said.

Contact Jody Serrano at jserrano@utexas.edu or follow her on Twitter @jodyserrano.