The eyes of Texas were not the only ones upon Austin last week as a years-long clash over leadership at the state’s premier research university came to a head. Years of tumult put the University of Texas at the forefront of an ideological clash over higher education in America, drawing a national audience.
Observers say the agreement to keep UT-Austin President Bill Powers on the job for another year was a key victory for traditional higher education, though the effort to oust him was a reminder of the mounting pressures on academia.
To varying degrees, ideological differences have pushed presidents out of office at universities from Oregon to Massachusetts. As the UT fight heated up over several years, participants and observers saw it as an important battle in a national war.
“What’s been going on in Texas is, I think, the hottest and most clear version of a battle that’s been happening across the country,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a longtime academic who earned his doctorate at UT and has taught for seven years at the University of Virginia, where a similar clash drew national attention in 2012.
As tuition has risen and students have amassed massive debt over the last several years, many have questioned the value of traditional academic culture. Universities across the country have grappled with affordability and transparency.
Many states, often led by Republican politicians, have pushed for universities to adopt business-minded reforms. As funding for public education has tightened, they want to see a more immediate return on the public’s investment.
They have pushed universities to focus less on research and more on preparing a skilled workforce. One prominent and controversial idea in Texas suggested that professors should be rated on how much money they “earn” for a university through tuition.
Academic leaders have pushed back, arguing that the research done at universities is vital to the American society and economy, even if it isn’t immediately clear what the outcomes of the research will be. University research has led to countless advancements in fields ranging from agriculture to medicine.
Texas academic leaders argued that the formula for rating professors favored massive lecture courses and undervalued research and smaller, high-level classes.
The fight has played out time and time again in clashes between boards of regents and presidents, as it did at UT.
Struggle began in 2008
Gov. Rick Perry, who has become a national figure in the push for higher education reform, compared it to the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II, “when only a few hundred yards were gained a day and fighting was viciously personal and brutal.”
The struggle at UT started in 2008, when Perry began pushing Texas universities to consider the ideas of his friend and donor, Jeff Sandefer, a UT professor-turned-businessman, whose “seven breakthrough solutions” suggest in part that universities should focus less on research and more on producing a skilled workforce. The idea of rating professors was Sandefer’s.
The clash played out with growing intensity over the last three years, largely between Powers and Perry-appointed regents, particularly Wallace Hall, who made repeated attempts to uncover wrongdoing under Powers’ tenure. Hall faces impeachment by the Legislature. The UT president’s job status was threatened numerous times. He survived, but recently lost the support of UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.
Cigarroa issued the ultimatum this month that Powers resign this year or be fired.
Powers’ supporters, a broad swath of students, faculty and alumni, count last week’s resignation as another victory. He’s leaving UT, but he’s doing so on his own terms in 2015, as he had suggested.
National observers say Powers’ resilience sends a message.
“Both substantively and symbolically, it’s a win for public research universities,” said Michael McLendon, an associate dean of education at Southern Methodist University who is a national higher education expert. “Many critics of UT-Austin have publicly argued for a reduced research focus at the university, criticism that has worried higher education observers not only in Texas but around the nation. That Powers’ resignation comes at a time of public and political support for the university’s traditional research mission, this will be viewed as a victory for the university and for like ones throughout the nation.”
Powers’ detractors see it differently. They see his departure as forced, and they say presidents at universities across America should take note.
“What we’ve seen are more engaged governing boards,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “New realities require new strategies and passive governance is not sufficient. This is an affirmation of the board’s leadership role and the fact that presidents report to boards, not vice versa.”
Cost of college risen
While the situation at UT evolved into a heated clash of personalities, at its core is a reminder that public pressure has mounted as the cost of college has risen, said Thomas Lindsay, who heads the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The group has pushed for the reforms suggested by Sandefer, a member of the foundation’s board.
“What I hope this will do, is to help to bring to awareness for Texans, the fact that this isn’t just a personality power struggle,” Lindsay said. “These sort of president-board clashes are going on around the country. Higher education is in a profound crisis of affordability and learning quality. Across the country, too many students are paying too much and learning too little.”
In 2012, the governing board of the University of Virginia pushed out Teresa Sullivan, a former UT dean of graduate studies who had become a popular president, despite having been at the university less than two years. The Virginia campus was essentially shut down in the weeks that followed her firing, as faculty, students and others protested the decision. Sullivan eventually was reinstated.
In the Powers case, UT’s powerful alumni group, Texas Exes, was planning a rally of its own last week; faculty in Austin delivered impassioned speeches in support of Powers the day his resignation was announced. They spoke of demonstrating, too, should he be fired.
Fervor rose in Virginia and began bubbling in Texas because supporters see such ousters as symbolic of what’s at stake, said Vaidhyanathan, who helped lead the push to reinstate Sullivan in Virginia.
“A lot of us who work for higher education are scurrying around. Occasionally we make a big save, like UVA or UT,” he said. “We’re trying to save a system that took 200 years to build. It’s a system that built the Internet, that made this country rich. The reason we have Google is that university funding and federal science funding paid for the initial research. The United States would not be as great as it is, if we had not made the decision in the early 19th century (to support it).”
Powers’ track record
Public support, many believe, is what allowed Powers to stick around a little longer. Also key was his track record – which will likely include completing an unprecedented $3 billion capital campaign and bringing a new medical school to Austin, among other things – said Michelle Cooper, head of the national Institute for Higher Education Policy.
“The public pressure, when you have someone with strong outcomes, can supersede the political forces,” Cooper said. “What I would say to traditional higher education academia is that you have to show and tell. People are asking tougher questions. People are expecting stronger answers. The leadership of these institutions need to be able to show and tell the outcomes if they want to be the ones to ultimately control their destiny.”
Popular UT president has reached an agreement to resign in June 2015 after years of fighting to keep his job
The Texas governor has emerged as a key figure in the national push for higher education reform
Perry friend and donor whose “seven breakthrough solutions” advocate a more business-oriented approach to higher education
UT System chancellor asked Powers to resign over the UT president’s ‘deteriorating relationship’ with the Board of Regents
UT regent faces impeachment questions over his probe into admissions at the UT-Austin campus