Regents, Powers & Lege repeat history when they fight

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These days, some 50,000 UT students wander this campus with headphones in their ears, faces glued to their screens and often, their uncertain futures on their brains. They are largely unaware of the lightning bolts traveling in the direction of UT President William Powers Jr. 

In recent months, the UT System Board of Regents — whose members are appointed by Gov. Rick Perry — have vocalized and tried to impose their will on the UT administration and in doing so, made not-so-subtle swipes at President Powers. They’ve ordered him not to comment about Omid Kokabee, a UT graduate student who is imprisoned in Iran, tied his compensation to students’ graduation rates and asked for a third investigation of the Law School Foundation’s forgivable loans to faculty members, a probe that has the potential to lead to Powers both as a result of his current role and his past one, as former dean of that school. 

Many observers, including members of the Texas Legislature, have accused the Board of Regents of micromanaging Powers and the University. Historically speaking, however, tensions between Powers and the regents should surprise no one. 

In this institution’s rich history, its presidents, governing regents and the politicians at the Capitol have often disagreed on how best to achieve the goal, set by the state’s constitution, to maintain “a university of first class” in Texas. Below, we share some examples of when UT presidents, regents and the Legislature have previously tussled:

Under Gov. James Edward “Pa” Ferguson, Jr.:

In 1916, the regents selected R. E. Vinson as the president of the university. During his tenure, Gov. Ferguson ordered Vinson to fire six faculty members but declined to provide justification, saying, “I am the governor of Texas; I don’t have to give reasons.” He did allude, however, to “a political ring in the University.” When Vinson refused, Ferguson demanded that he be fired, too, threatening to veto the University’s entire appropriation from the Legislature, which would close the University down.

Ultimately, Gov. Ferguson was indicted for misapplication, embezzlement and diversion of public funds and was removed from office. All fired professors except one had their jobs restored, and Vinson stayed on as president.

Under Gov. Pat Neff:

In 1923, the regents made a new rule: “that no infidel, atheist or agnostic be employed in any capacity in the University of Texas, and ... no person who does not believe in God as the Supreme Being and the Ruler of the Universe shall hereafter be employed.”

Under Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel: 

O’Daniel told his advisors in 1941 that he appointed six of the nine regents to curb UT’s supposedly misguided ways, which he claimed were the source of all “radicalism” in the state. He hoped that the new regents would do a better job of keeping UT aligned with his political motivations.

D. F. Strickland, a regent, gave Homer Rainey, then president of UT, the names of four professors of economics: Robert Montgomery, Clarence Ayres, E. E. Hale and Clarence Wiley. “We want you to fire these men,” Strickland said.  This action came as part of a witch hunt led by the regents, who accused UT of being too sympathetic to “socialist” faculty or those perceived to have a New Deal bias.

Rainey vigorously defended the faculty, calling a public meeting to accuse the regents of improper behavior. In response, the regents voted to fire Rainey. About 5,000 students protested at the Capitol and went on a week-long strike in defense of their beloved president, but unfortunately the deed was done.

Under Gov. John Connally:

 In 1964, Regent John Reddit resigned, claiming that Gov. Connally was dictating and micromanaging the board. He further — accurately — predicted that there was more to come. Connally also appointed Frank Erwin to the Board of Regents. Erwin, an Austin business lawyer, became chairman of the board in 1966, but his career was marked by controversy.

Critics have charged Erwin with enabling the regents to award building contracts to political allies rather than meritorious contractors. He also worked to silence the presence of campus counterculture, and he worked to fire professors whose politics he considered unpatriotic. According to The Daily Texan, Erwin said, “We’ve got some tenured people at Austin I’d like to get rid of, but I’d hate to shut the University down to do it.”