Outgoing President Powers Touts UT-Austin's Gains, Has No Regrets

Outgoing UT-Austin President Bill Powers said this week that he felt he always acted in the best interest of the school and is proud of the reforms he helped implement. He also defended his actions related to university admissions.

UT-Austin President Bill Powers is shown at a hearing of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations on Dec. 18, 2013.

During his first meeting on his first day as president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers gave the school’s deans a reading assignment: Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.

The book describes how the general manager of the Oakland A’s succeeded with a limited budget and upended Major League Baseball by using statistical analysis to measure the value of his players. So it may have seemed unlikely at the time that Powers would build a legacy at the school as the guy who fought off business-minded reforms. 

But in a way, that’s how it turned out. The last half of Powers’ nearly 10-year tenure as president has been marked by a power struggle between his office, some members of the UT System Board of Regents and state leaders over the mission and vision of the school. His job has been at risk multiple times, and he's been accused of manipulating the school's admissions process to help a few students with political connections — something he made no attempt to deny during an interview this week with The Texas Tribune. 

But Powers, 68, said he'll exit the president's office in June with the feeling that he acted in the best interest of the school, adding that he put up a good fight in the debate over its future. And as he leaves, his side in that debate seems securely in charge — a majority of the regents seems to support him, and his second-in-command, Gregory Fenves, is taking over as president.  

“I am absolutely gratified that we seem to have the more difficult parts of that debate behind us,” Powers said. 

He said he is also proud to have had the chance to push through reforms of his own. The school has grown more efficient, he said, with a more diverse student body, rising graduation rate and thriving research programs. 

“I think now the deans would say with a smile on their face that we are a Moneyball campus,” he said. 

Undergraduate Education and Research

Powers took over the job in 2006, and one of his first goals was to revamp UT-Austin’s undergraduate education. He worked to hire prominent faculty. He created the School of Undergraduate Studies, which oversees courses that all freshmen take and works with students to chart their paths through college. And he overhauled the undergraduate curriculum, adding mandatory "signature courses" taught by senior faculty in small classrooms. 

The quick changes made many faculty members skeptical of Powers' overhaul at first. But they were slowly won over, said Bill Beckner, who chairs the school's faculty council. Now, the student success efforts have generated national attention, and many faculty members view their school as ahead of the curve in teaching students, Beckner said. 

“Eventually, people will look back and see this as the beginning of a golden age in instructional change and breaking traditional molds,” Beckner said.

Those changes have come amid two significant challenges. First, the economy collapsed in 2008, forcing the university to cut tens of millions of dollars from its budget. Around that time, some UT System regents and statewide leaders, led by Gov. Rick Perry, began pushing their own ideas for changes.

The ideas were wide-ranging and alarming to many faculty members. Some regents wanted to dramatically increase enrollment. There was talk about emphasizing student ratings when evaluating professors. And proposals were made to divide teaching and research budgets at schools to increase transparency. 

Powers disagreed with many of those ideas. At times, his resistance looked like it might cost him his job. And it prompted a big fight at the school, where groups split into factions and accusations of ill motives and possible corruption were levied from both sides. 

Powers, however, said he sees those fights on a broader scale. They fit into a nationwide debate about the future of higher education. People pushing for reform believed that the growing state of Texas will need to accommodate more students. And many of those students will need inexpensive opportunities. 

But Powers said his job was to protect UT-Austin's mission. It's an elite public school, he said, not necessarily the most efficient or ideal place to dramatically increase the number of students. And the school's research is vitally important, not a secondary mission, he said. The value of the university comes from more than just the people it educates and the job vacancies it helps fill, he said; it also comes from the contributions its faculty has made to basic knowledge.  

Discounting or ignoring that value is a bad idea, he said. And that's true not just at UT-Austin, but at places like Texas A&M University and Tier One research universities across the country. 

“This gets at the core of what is going on across the country,” Powers said. “I think we have aspects of being a business and have aspects of not being a business. You have got to take into account more than just the quarterly losses and profits, but also the contribution for improving knowledge for the benefit of society.”

That kind of talk resonated with faculty and alumni, who rallied in support of Powers at the times his job seemed at risk. 

"Many faculty feel like he stood up for us," Beckner said. 

But to former UT Board of Regents Chairman Charles Miller, the stories of Powers as a defender of UT-Austin are exaggerated. Many of the reform ideas proposed by Perry were unpopular with regents all along, he said. They probably wouldn't have happened, with or without Powers. The public battles were less about the future of higher education and more about Powers' inability to get along with multiple chancellors and regents, he said. 

"He caused a fight continuously with his board and chancellors at a time when the board was more supportive of UT-Austin than at any time in history," Miller said. 

No Regrets Over Admissions

As Powers leaves, one key fight still looms. Questions remain about his role in university admissions. 

Last year, thanks in part to the work of one of Powers’ biggest critics, UT System Regent Wallace Hall, the system hired an outside firm to investigate the school's admissions practices. The firm, Kroll Associates, found that 73 students had been accepted into UT-Austin over several years over the objections of the admissions office. Some of those students appeared to get in because they had political connections, the report said. The report also said that Powers and his office misled a previous internal inquiry into the matter.

This week, Powers said he was satisfied with the report, which he called thorough. He didn't go into details, but he also wholeheartedly defended his actions as described in the report. That behavior, he said, is "widespread" at American universities. It is important to keep relationships with important leaders, he said. 

“I think a little bit of it is helpful in the long-term interest of the university and its students," he said. 

After the report, UT System Chancellor William McRaven commissioned a “blue ribbon” panel this year to review the situation and recommend any changes. Powers said he is confident that the panel will view the situation the same way he does.

“It would be a mistake to not have the president, in a very modest way, have some involvement in admissions,” he said.

Powers also denied the accusation that he misled anyone about his actions, pausing in response to a question about the subject and then answering with one carefully thought-out sentence: “We didn’t attempt to, nor did we in fact, in my view, mislead."

He also said he didn't want to discuss whether he thought the inquiry was the result of personal feeling emanating from the broader debate at the school. 

“I’ll leave that to others to comment,” he said.

Miller, meanwhile, sees the admissions scandal as an embarrassment for the university. 

"I think it is absolutely inappropriate what Bill Powers did," he said. "It was an active effort to cheat the system and deceive the public."

There is no evidence that the practice is common across the country, Miller said. It was inappropriate to make that suggestion, he said. 

"I think it permanently damaged the reputation of the University of Texas," he said. 

Staying at UT-Austin

Either way, the positions Powers has taken have left him broadly popular among faculty on campus.

“Many faculty feel he has stood up for us,” Beckner said.

And in June, Powers will return to their ranks. He said he hopes to continue to be a voice in the nationwide debate about the future of higher education. While he plans to write a memoir, he said he still intends to put in 40 hours per week at the university as a professor.

He said he hopes to teach a freshman seminar on leadership and courses in the law school on torts and legal philosophy.

“I’ll work for the dean, so I’ll do what I’m told,” he said.

At times, he wishes he could stick around in the president role and enjoy the fruits of his recent hard-fought victories, he said. But overall, he said, he’s happy with the way things are ending.

“There are certain things I will miss about the job, and things I might not miss about the job – you know, the 18-hour days,” he said. “But I do not wake up at night thinking this is not the right time.” 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Charles Miller is a donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.