Trustees | Trusteeship

Split vote on UT president could signal continued turmoil

March 30, 2015 by Lauren McGaughy and Benjamin Wermund

AUSTIN — Speculation over who will be the University of Texas at Austin’s next president is over, but the divided vote Friday to approve Provost Gregory Fenves for the job suggests that years of internal strife at the state’s top research school may not end with Bill Powers’ departure.

Fenves was named sole finalist in a rare 5-3 vote by the UT System board of regents that has clashed with Powers, a longtime friend and colleague of Fenves, who, in making him provost, lined Fenves up as his possible successor.

Fenves has the support of faculty, is an effective fundraiser and is a respected academic, but the circumstances around his naming — including being the last contender after two other finalists dropped out and being picked by a divided board — could make his job a difficult one, observers said.

He will have to pull the state’s premiere university through the discord that marred his predecessor’s final years and deal with a recent scandal over admissions practices that some say could damage the university’s reputation.

Three regents who have been at odds with Powers — Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall Jr. and Brenda Pejovich — voted against Fenves, suggesting that the tensions between the system and its flagship may remain even as Powers departs.

“It could certainly signal that there will still be divisions on the board,” said former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, head of the powerful UT alumni group the Texas Exes. “But I think the majority was strong, and I think the chancellor made this recommendation. And barring some real issue, normally, the chancellor’s recommendation would be followed.”

Hall especially has been at odds with Powers and his allies the past three years as he undertook massive public records requests into Powers’ administration that earned him an official censure from the state House while also raising questions into admissions practices and secret loan programs at the Austin campus.

After voting against Fenves, Hall implied that his appointment would mean the continuation of what he sees as a history of troubling policies under Powers. Remarking on UT’s motto, “What starts here changes the world,” Hall said, “I guess our tag line is ‘What starts here stays the same.’”

The split vote will “hobble” the new president from his first day, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a longtime academic who earned his doctorate at UT and has followed the saga.

“It’s common and traditional to see university governing boards vote unanimously on the record even when there is dissent during deliberations to enable a candidate to assume office with the public perception of unity and support, like a political convention voting by acclimation for the winning nominee,” Vaidhyanathan said.

Regent Chairman Paul Foster was more optimistic about the divided vote.

“I think it’s wonderful that we have a diverse board and that we don’t rubber stamp any issues,” he said, adding that he would have voted for Fenves if a tie had occurred.

Fenves’ naming comes weeks after a report commissioned by the board found that Powers, on some occasions, stepped in on behalf of lawmakers, alumni and regents to ensure that certain students were admitted.

As provost, Fenves was over the admissions office. As president, he will need to help “clean up” the admissions process, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that has supported Hall in his fight with Powers.

“Cleaning up the mess and giving the state, its taxpayers, its leadership reassurance that UT will operate in an impeccably ethical manner with absolute integrity is going to be a crucial — absolutely indispensable — element in restoring that working relationship and trust,” Poliakoff said.

The board’s decision follows weeks of speculation about other candidates for the job, including Andrew Hamilton, vice chancellor at the University of Oxford. Fenves was the last name remaining on the short list after Hamilton took the top job at New York University and Joseph Steinmetz, executive vice president and provost at Ohio State University, withdrew.

“There was a very robust search process,” said Melinda Perrin, a member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group that has supported Powers. Perrin has served on previous presidential search committees.

“When Greg Fenves was benchmarked against all the external competition, he rose to the top out of that very deep pool,” she said.

Fenves, who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest national honor awarded to engineers in the United States, has a long history in academia, including leading UT’s prestigious Cockrell School of Engineering, where he raised more than $300 million for the university’s $3.1 billion Campaign for Texas.

“We had an extremely impressive slate of candidates to consider, and I believe we’ve made the right choice for UT-Austin, its students, faculty and staff,” UT Chancellor Bill McRaven said in a statement.

By state law, Fenves’ appointment will not be official for 21 days, and his contract details, including salary, still are being hammered out. Powers made a base salary of $624,350 and receives an annual $50,000 in deferred compensation. UT’s longtime rival Texas A&M is paying its new president at least $1.4 million a year.

Fenves, who will take up the president’s post after Powers departs in June, said in a statement that he is “humbled and tremendously excited” to be UT’s next leader.

“UT-Austin is unmatched in its potential to educate and inspire leaders,” Fenves said. “I would be honored to lead this university and work with the chancellor, board of regents and all Longhorns and partners across Texas and the nation.”


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