The Politics of Being the President of a Flagship University: William Powers v. Rick Perry!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzes how President William Powers maneuvered around his call for dismissal by the chancellor of the University of Texas (UT) system who many believed was acting under the orders of Governor Rick Perry. Powers is described in the article as:

“…a steely campus chief with powerful connections.

It was those connections that surely bore down on the chancellor as he mulled over six agonizing days whether to grant Mr. Powers a stay of execution. In that time, lawmakers, donors, alumni, faculty members, students, and the head of the nation’s most prominent group of research universities all decried what came to be called the “July 4 coup.”

“We had a lot of support,” Mr. Powers said in an interview after Wednesday’s agreement. “I think that had a big influence.”

The roots of Mr. Powers’s untidy success story go back as far as 2008, when public higher education became the biggest political news in the famously politicized state of Texas.

At that time, Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, implicitly endorsed a conservative think tank’s prescription for the sector, which critics described as wasteful, expensive, and out of touch. The “seven breakthrough solutions” would change all of that, advocates argued, by treating students more like customers and ensuring that professors were as devoted to teaching as they were to doing research into often-esoteric topics.

Mr. Powers looked across that political landscape and drew one conclusion: The think tank’s proposals would weaken an elite research university, and he needed friends as powerful as Mr. Perry’s to stop them.

The president went straight to the University Development Board, a collection of wealthy and politically connected Texans, many of whom had given money to the governor’s campaigns. Mr. Powers’s message was simple, one of his advisers recalled: “We’re in trouble, and I need your help.”

“It really destabilized the governor’s political base,” said the adviser, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly amid a leadership crisis. “Many of those same people were people the governor needed.”

We are happy that Powers is able to leave the presidency on his own terms and even happier that he was able to stand up to the ideological witch hunt of Governor Perry.



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