Heart-ing Powers

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Ross McBee, a third-year biology major, remembers driving to dinner on 24th Street with his roommates last fall, when a black Porsche pulled up. At first, McBee and his pals merely admired the car, and then they noticed the driver, UT President William Powers Jr. himself.

"I look over and my friend looks over, and we look at each other like, holy crap, that's President Powers, and whoever was driving double taps the horn and gives him the hook'em and he smiles and does it back and we're like, 'Yeah let's keep this going,' and so we started yelling and screaming and someone was standing out of the sun roof and hooking'em, and he was smiling and giving a hook'em back the whole time. I've seen that car by the tower, but I've never seen him driving in it," McBee said.

We still don't know if "jeopardized" accurately described or describes President Powers' employment status. The online ruckus about Powers' job began around dinnertime on May 9, when Texas Monthly Senior Executive Paul Burka published a post on his eponymous BurkaBlog, which said: "A source tells me that UT president Bill Powers may be in danger of losing his job as a result of his opposition to Governor Perry's insistence on a tuition freeze."

Burka never named his source, but Powers' opposition had been made available in an email he sent several days earlier to students, faculty, staff, alumni and others, which said: "The freeze will have serious consequences for UT Austin and for the ability of Texans to benefit from strong public universities," and that the regents' decision "inevitably will affect our ability to teach our students and make new discoveries."

After the Burka post, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa swiftly denied that Powers was at risk of being fired. Facebook groups and Twitter accounts where students voiced support for Powers appeared online. Some of those listed as members of the group, "I STAND WITH BILL POWERS," said they were surprised to find they had been added to the group overnight, without prior consultation. The group, started by UT graduate student Rachel Meyerson and past student body president Keshav Rajagopalan, now boasts more than 11,000 members. Rajagopalan told The Daily Texan the majority of the people who are now in the group now requested to join.

Because further student protest was rendered unnecessary by Cigarroa's reassurances, it remains to be seen if clicking "join group" is as far as students' righteous indignation will take them.

Quite possibly, personal tension exists between Governor Perry and President Powers. That tension reflects a larger and long-running conflict between two groups: those who believe UT should do more with less money, and those who believe the Texas legislature is obligated to support UT so that the burden of funding its necessary growth does not fall on the shoulders of UT students. 

There is a third group, UT students, which, it too often goes unsaid, supply the reason for the existence of the regents, a President, a Chancellor and a University. Their explosive online support of Powers was curious because the President's outspokenness in favor of tuition increases, while courageous, is not a position one might expect to endear him to UT students, who may support Powers' efforts to ensure UT continues to be well-funded, but not on their dime. Notably, many UT students who voiced support for Powers online denounced tuition increases at the same time.

UT history demonstrates the regents' potential clout, which could trump students' sentiment in favor of Powers, no matter how unified or forceful it becomes. In the 1940s, UT President Homer Rainey and the regents battled over free-speech. When Rainey voiced his objections to the regents at a faculty meeting, the regents fired him. UT students went on strike, marching 8,000-strong and silent from campus to the Capitol, but the regents refused to reverse their decision.

Fifty years later, a skeptic might wonder if UT students really know much about Powers, other than as the man in charge for the past seven years, and for some, like McBee, the friendly man in charge driving a Porsche. Would he inspire them to turn out en masse, whether online or in the streets as the students did more than half a century ago? It's fair to question whether the May outcry in favor of Powers actually stemmed from students' support for his policies, or ran no deeper than "I Heart Powers" t-shirts and a parody Twitter account. Both demonstrate the extent to which Powers' popularity transcends any unpopular policy decision he may support thanks to the celebrity status he enjoys among many UT students. If events unfold so students are compelled to show support for Powers, they better study their man, their arguments and their tactics to beat the regents at this game.

One has a hard time believing the May online campaign would have dissuaded the regents from firing Powers had that been their objective. Importantly, though, the groundswell of support enjoyed by Powers reveals students' willingness to overlook differences in opinion regarding tuition increases when they feel that something, or someone, that they deem important to keeping UT the place they know and love is threatened. After all, maintaining UT's cherished character has been the argument used to justify tuition increases all along.