Powers to step down in 2015

Texas officials announced Wednesday university president Bill Powers would serve through the 2014-15 school year before stepping down - avoiding a Thursday showdown with UT regents.

Outgoing UT chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced Wednesday he had accepted a letter of resignation from Powers, effective June 2, 2015.

Last week, Cigarroa went to Powers, 68, to inform UT's president that he needed to agree to step down by the end of October or be fired and cited a lack of trust between the two as well as poor communication.

Powers, at that time, asked if he could step down next June. It was unclear if that would be acceptable to the nine-member UT regents board, which had an agenda item on Thursday in which Powers was expected to be fired, sources told HornsDigest.com. But Cigarroa said Wednesday allowing Powers to step down next June was the best course for Texas.

"President Powers is an admired leader who, as I’ve said before, has advanced the University in many ways," Cigarroa said. "He is concluding a record-breaking $3 billion capital campaign, has worked with the UT System and the Board of Regents in the past year to establish the Dell Medical School and to launch construction of a $310 million Engineering Education and Research Center – which together will be a major catalyst for UT Austin to achieve the ranking and recognition it deserves – and he has earned the reputation as a national leader in higher education.

"It is, however, time for an orderly change in leadership. While ultimately productive, the past years have not been without struggle and, at times, conflict and controversy. There was no single incident that prompted my decision to ask President Powers for his resignation last week, but a long history of issues with communication, responsiveness and a willingness to collaborate."

Cigarroa announced that UT regents board chair Paul Foster would begin an "exhaustive national search" beginning in August that will include an advisory committee to find Powers' replacement.

HornsDigest.com reported Tuesday the nine-member regents board had a majority of five votes to oust Powers at a scheduled meeting on Thursday because Foster had joined a block of four UT regents who have aggressively opposed Powers the past three years. But with Foster in agreement on Powers' departure date of June 2, 2015, Thursday's regents meeting is not expected to get ugly.

“We came to this decision because everyone involved has the highest admiration for this university,” Powers said Wednesday after the announcement. “Why now? Why today? That’s something I don’t think would be useful for me to speculate.”

Powers said after his term as president he plans to return to UT's law school, where he is a former dean, and teach and write books.

“I’ll take some time off and teach in the law school,” Powers said. “I have some books I want to write on legal philosophy and torts and other areas. I’ll have plenty to do. It’ll be probably a little emotional, but I’ll be here. I’ve always planned to stay at the University of Texas.

“It is the highest honor and blessing of my life to be here leading the University of Texas,” Powers said. “It’s the right time for me and my family.”

Powers had survived at least four attempts to have him ousted as part of a three-year feud with a block of four UT regents - Wallace Hall, Alex Cranberg, Vice Chairman Eugene Powell and Brenda Pejovich - appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.

But there was never a fifth vote on the board to vote out Powers until the past two weeks, when Foster decided to join the block, a source close to the situation told HornsDigest.com.

After last week's ultimatum from Cigarroa to Powers, an agenda item for Thursday's regents meeting was posted on Monday to have "discussion and take appropriate action" on Powers based on a recommendation from Texas executive vice chancellor Raymond S. Greenberg.

This week, Cigarroa released a statement explaining all of his actions.

"Everything I do is in the best interest of The University of Texas," Cigarroa said. "In recent days I have been accused of acting at the direction of the governor or some members of the Board of Regents in this decision and of taking steps that will ultimately damage UT Austin. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"I have supported Bill Powers consistently for the last five years, but this latest decision originates with the UT System’s Office of Academic Affairs and my office and is based on a breakdown of communication, collegiality, trust and a willingness to work together for the good of the university."

Last week, Cigarroa expressed to Powers he could step down in October, after finishing his term as chairman of the Association of American Universities (the most prestigious research institutions in the country).

HornsDigest.com reported last Friday that Powers countered to Cigarroa that he'd be willing to step down at the end of the 2014-15 school year. But it was unclear if the regents board would agree with that or call for Powers to step down immediately. Then came Wednesday's announcement.

The spin cycles on both sides had been working overtime. The anti-Powers forces were trying to say Powers was directly involved with admitting unqualified friends and family of politicians into UT and UT's law school - primarily Democrats.

Those who support Powers say a nine-month investigation by the chancellor's office found no evidence of wrongdoing by Powers as it pertained to UT admissions and no evidence of quid pro quo.

Powers' supporters said any talk of that was purely a smokescreen for a political vendetta against Powers finally being carried out at the direction of Perry, who is not seeking re-election after 14 years in office (the longest serving governor in Texas history).

Even those on Powers' side said he could be difficult and hard-headed and that he may have finally aggravated Cigarroa one too many times after years of Cigarroa standing up for Powers.

After a five-hour discussion about Powers' future at a regents meeting in mid-December, Powers barely escaped with the support of Cigarroa and a narrow margin of support among the regents. After that meeting, Cigarroa said Powers didn't listen to him or respect the chancellor's office but that enough people did appreciate Powers that he gave him a weak vote of confidence.

Sources said a whistleblower had come forward from the admissions office with some new evidence incriminating Powers. Powers' supporters said it was all cover for Perry's desire to get rid of what conservative Republicans see as an out-of-touch, liberal school president who opposes Perry-supported higher-education reforms.

Those controversial reforms - championed by wealthy UT alum and Perry ally Jeff Sandefer - figure to be cornerstones of any Perry White House bid in 2016. Powers has long had the support of students, faculty, big-money donors and key members of the Legislature. Powers, a former dean of the UT Law School with wide respect from his peers, has helped raise about $2.9 billion of the $3 billion Capital Campaign initiated by Powers in 2008.

A strong supporter of Texas athletics, Powers took an active role in guiding Texas through realignment in 2010 and 2011. And he made sure some of the $300 million being paid to Texas by ESPN for the rights to the Longhorn Network has gone to academics - to the tune of $5 million to $9 million per year since LHN's inception in 2011.

But some wondered if Powers lost traction with a few big-money donors after the way he handled Mack Brown's termination last December. And there's no doubt some of Powers' key support in the Legislature was fading - none bigger than the defeat of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst by state Sen. Dan Patrick in the GOP primary.

Dewhurst made sure the lieutenant governor's office, arguably the most powerful in the state, was vocal in support of Powers before his primary loss.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, seen as a Powers' supporter in the past, had been quiet this week.

When asked for comment, Straus spokesman Jason Embry offered this: "While Speaker Straus respects the right of the Chancellor and the Board of Regents to make appropriate personnel decisions, he is very disappointed that they have not been forthcoming or respectful of the Legislature on a number of issues recently," Embry said.

"And he believes their mishandling of this latest controversy threatens serious harm to higher education in Texas."

Texas State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who alleged Hall abused his position as a regent to find dirt on Powers and then led impeachment hearings against Hall, is retiring. And the future of those impeachment hearings is in limbo.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a UT graduate and the Republican nominee for governor, was also quiet this week with a November election against Democratic Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis looming.

Moderate Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, a UT graduate and former U.S. senator who now heads the Texas Exes alumni organization, came out in support of Powers in an email titled "Urgent State of Affairs at UT-Austin."

Regarding the ultimatum given to Powers by Cigarroa to step down or be fired at Thursday's regents meeting, Hutchison wrote:

“It would cause further tension with legislators regarding UT System, would compound unrest among faculty, students, and alumni, and invoke serious harm to the institution’s reputation in the national spotlight.

“President Powers has advanced the university through many tremendous accomplishments, and has been a great leader; he deserves better than this. This is about our university; it is a treasure that alumni need to protect and we need to stand up and fight for its stature. The University of Texas at Austin deserves better than this.”

As Powers balked at several of Perry's higher education reform initiatives, tensions between Powers and the regents increased. Sensing he was becoming a growing target, Powers tried to avoid stepping on any political landmines - including the idea of whether UT should condemn land in East Austin for a new basketball arena, sources told HornsDigest.com.

I was told any potential revelations in former women's track coach Bev Kearney's discrimination lawsuit against UT that reflected poorly on Powers could have been used by the regents to oust him.

It seemed the anti-Powers' regents were always looking for a hook to hang the UT president.

The latest were allegations of admissions' office impropriety, which Powers denies.

Worn down and aggravated by the ongoing fight, Powers let it be known in some circles that he wanted simply to remain UT president longer than Perry remained governor, a source told HornsDigest.com.

That sentiment apparently reached Perry's office and was not appreciated, the source said.

Now, with Perry leaving the Governor's Mansion at the end of the year, Powers will get his wish.

But at what cost to Texas has all the infighting brought to the 40 Acres?

Several highly regarded athletic directors told me they wouldn't consider replacing DeLoss Dodds because of the uncertainty involving Powers and the regents. How will all of it affect UT's ability to find the best possible replacement for Powers?

Foster's search beginning in August will give us the answer.

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