A blog post claiming the UT System Board of Regents may have plans to fire President William Powers Jr. on Wednesday night invoked a series of responses from the UT community, ranging from indignation to justification.
The report was published by Paul Burka, a senior executive editor of Texas Monthly, on his blog on the publication's website. In it, Burka cites an anonymous source with knowledge of the proceedings who said Powers is in hot water because of his "opposition to Governor [Rick] Perry’s insistence on a tuition freeze."
The report produced an overnight social media campaign to “#SaveBillPowers” on Twitter and Facebook and prompted meetings of student and faculty leaders on campus Thursday to address the issue. Powers released a statement Thursday expressing his love of UT and honor to serve as president, but did not address the reports of his possible termination. He said that at the moment, he is focused on the students graduating in the next few weeks.
“I am deeply grateful for the support of our students, faculty, staff and the thousands of members of the UT family," Powers said. "I will continue to work with the entire UT community to move the university forward."
In December, Powers decided to adopt recommendations crafted by the University's Tuition Policy Advisory Committee, which is made up of students, faculty and staff, and send that to the UT System.
Powers’ recommended a 2.6 percent increase on in-state undergraduates and a 3.6 percent increase on out-of-state students and graduate students over the next two years. The regents chose instead freeze tuition at its current level for undergraduate students and to increase tuition for out-of-state undergraduate students by 2.1 percent over the next two years and 3.6 percent for graduate students over the next year.
The board, which serves as the governing body of the UT System, is composed of nine voting regents and one nonvoting student regent. All of the current regents were appointed by Perry.
Michael Morton, president of the Senate of College Councils, said members from Student Government, Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly will be launching a postcard campaign this weekend where they will ask students to sign postcards supporting Powers to send to the UT System office.
“The general response is students have been outraged and shocked that the regents could possibly [fire Powers], and they’re angry because they realize President Powers does have the right vision for the university,” said Morton, who supported Powers’ proposal on tuition increases. “It’s a rumor and we need to treat it as such. We need to be prepared, and we are."
Morton also said they will be launching a website to collect signatures supporting Powers and that select students will be writing an op-ed on the issue next week. In addition, the UT Faculty Council will meet Monday to present a resolution stating a vote of confidence for Powers.
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, the Facebook group “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS” had approximately 9,868 members, the Twitter handle “@SaveBillPowers” had 268 followers and the Facebook group “I do NOT stand with Rick Perry” had 44 members. Meanwhile, a separate Facebook group, “Bill Powers Can Stand for Himself,” a group against the proposed tuition increases, stood at 57 members.
Members of the movement supporting Powers encouraged people to call the UT System office to express their support of the president’s his mission to promote excellence at UT.
In his blog, Burka said Board Chairman Gene Powell prompted UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to fire Powers, and Cigarroa refused to do so. Cigarroa released a statement Thursday denying the allegations.
“The Chairman of the Board of Regents has never directed me to fire anyone,” Cigarroa said in the statement.
Burka responded to Cigarroa’s statement Thursday and said his source was highly credible and continues to stand behind information the regents were planning to fire Powers. Burka said it is an open secret that some regents want to get rid of Powers.
“I have another highly placed source in the Texas higher ed community who emailed me last night about Powers’ potential firing, and the message read, 'It’s not a question of if, but when,’” Burka said. “This is a moving target, and I am trying to get the latest information.”
Burka said he had tried to get in contact with Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Representative Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who both sit on the state’s respective higher education committees. He said he has gotten no response yet.
Branch did not address Burka’s report directly but said he was quite impressed with Powers’ leadership skills.
“It is my view that President Powers is doing an outstanding job as President of the University of Texas at Austin,” Branch said.
John Davis Rutkauskas, the nonvoting student regent and a UT business honors and Plan II senior, said to direct all questions to the system’s director for public affairs. Rutkauskas, who has the same duties as all the other regents, said all he knew about was Cigarroa’s statement.
“You have access to all the information I do, and that’s all the comment I will give,” he said.
According to The Texas Tribune, Jeff Boyd, Perry’s chief of staff, sent an email to Cigarroa and Powell in March conveying the governor’s concern over any tuition increase. Boyd also said in the email that it is Perry's belief "that the university should be able to identify inefficiencies to fund whatever priorities any increase would be intended to support.”
Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Perry, said Thursday that Perry’s office did not know anything about plans to remove Powers beside what had been in the news.
“I can definitely say the governor has had no involvement in it,” Frazier said.
Alan Friedman, Faculty Council chairman, said many faculty members were appalled by the revelations of Burka’s report and concerned the regents were trying to stop the administration from doing its job.
Friedman said he was told by a different source that Cigarroa had asked Powers to withdraw the recommendation and Powers refused, and Friedman believes that may have caused the rift. Friedman said in contrast, he heard R. Bowen Loftin, president of Texas A&M University, did withdraw tuition recommendations when asked by respective authorities.
Loftin did not recommend a tuition increase at the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents meeting in April despite his statements A&M needs more revenue.
“[If Burka’s report is true] the decision harms UT as an institution and undermines the ability of the administration to function at its best by making them fearful that someone is always looking over their shoulder, monitoring what they do with reasons that may be political or personal,” Friedman said.
This is not the first time Powers’ position has come under fire. Rumors began circulating last May amid a higher education debate regarding the value of academic research at state institutions. At a hearing in October, Powell told Zaffirini that the rumors were unfounded and that both Powers' and Cigarroa's jobs were safe.