UT regents spark wildfire of emotions in Austin

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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It's part of the institutional DNA at the University of Texas at Austin that high drama must erupt every few years, often when actions by UT System regents excite the emotions of students, faculty and alumni.

The explosive issues are important. But it's also important to note that the rarified atmosphere of the place, with its expansive but naturally somewhat insular campus, 51,000 students, 24,000 faculty and staff members, and high-pressure administrative jobs is conducive to emotional wildfires.

The one burning now, caused by what many see as "micromanaging" by some regents who want to dislodge university President Bill Powers, is perhaps more intense than most in that it has drawn in several powerful legislators attempting to save Powers.

A tribute to Powers on the Senate floor last month included a tearful speech from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

The behavior of some regents has been extreme. The board decided on a 4-3 vote March 20 to commission an outside investigation, estimated to cost around $500,000, of the use of funds raised by an independent foundation in support of UT Austin law school. Powers is a former dean of the law school.

The foundation's spending included high-dollar "forgivable loans" used as a tool to recruit and retain faculty members. The matter has already been investigated by the UT System's vice chancellor and general counsel, who recommended that the loans cease. The attorney general's office reviewed the findings and agreed, and the loan program was ended.

On Tuesday, 18 senators sent a letter to Gene Powell, the regents' chairman, saying another investigation is unnecessary. But if the regents insist on it, the letter said, it should be done by the attorney general's office so it doesn't cost so much. The regents have not explained why another investigation is needed.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Higher Education began debating SB15, a bill by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, that in part would restrict regents of all state university systems from acting outside of their proper policy-setting role. Despite testimony from representatives of students, graduate students and ex-students about low campus morale, committee members had trouble defining the difference between improper regent meddling and proper inquiries into how the university functions.

The regents will have to satisfy the senators about the need for another investigation.

The lawmakers have to be very careful about refashioning statewide statutes in the emotional atmosphere that has enveloped them.

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