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December 13, 2013

Disarray at the University of Texas

Powers_Horns_jpg_800x1000_q100.jpg

By Richard Vedder

In Texas, academic disputes often are Texas-sized: protracted, bitter brawls where civilized rules of conduct are often ignored. Another chapter in a long a drawn out soap opera has played out in Austin, with UT President Bill Powers retaining his job after a Board of Regents meeting regarding his fate.  Powers will soon finish his eighth year as president, making him the second longest serving leader in UT history, and will pass his 68th birthday by the end of this academic year.  Since Powers is clearly at retirement age, and several Regents have been concerned about the direction the school is taking, many expected Powers to ease into retirement.  But things are seldom that simple at UT.

The UT situation may seem a bit like a reprise of the 2012 University of Virginia brouhaha when that institution's Board of Visitors briefly fired Teresa Sullivan. But the UT saga is far more protracted and dirtier. Full disclosure: I played a bit role in the drama, having co- authored a report on UT faculty workloads contributing to the ensuing kerfuffle.

Bill Powers became President of the University of Texas at Austin in early 2006, previously being dean of its law school.  He has been a strong defender of the school's quest to be a nationally leading research university among public institutions. Texas is the second most populous state with easily the largest (over $18 billion) public school endowment, so its flagship university should be ranked in the top five public schools.

We're Number 52

Yet UT's performance seems somewhat disappointing.  In 2006, US News & World Report ranked it  52th among national universities; after eight years of Powers, its 2014 rank is the same.  Among public universities, it ties for 16th (with Ohio State and the University of Washington). Far from being at the top of public universities, UT ranks below five campuses of the University of California, and below schools in several much smaller states - Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida.  Texas ranks somewhat higher in the Forbes list (compiled by my Center for College Affordability and Productivity -CCAP), the 9th top public school (excluding national military academies). But again, UT ranks below flagship schools in Virginia (two of them), Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois and Washington (as well as California).

About three years ago, word spread that the UT Regents were not happy with Powers.  A report on faculty workloads that CCAP did showed vast variations in teaching, with lots of high paid professors with low teaching loads but also not receiving large amounts of external research support.  Rick O'Donnell, hired by the Regents as a special adviser, reached similar findings, questioning some of the research endeavors. Yet, as I noted on the Chronicle of Higher Education web site in 2011, "UT leaders have mobilized groups as diverse as UT alumni and the Association of American Universities to fight, before any specific proposal has even been seriously made...."

Indeed, the ferocity of the UT response to any criticism seems extraordinary.  One UT supporter, in an obvious  attempt at intimidation, made a public records request to Ohio University regarding my work there (which it wisely declined to provide). The Texas Exes, an alumni support group, issued a barrage of nearly 100,000 emails supporting Powers. Shortly before I participated in a conference in Washington, D.C., on university productivity, UT issued a press release trying to discredit my yet unmade presentation (which only tangentially mentioned UT).  The UT community raised such a brouhaha about O'Donnell's role that he was let go as a special adviser.

Attacking a Regent

One Regent in particular who demanded information about various campus activities was Wallace Hall. Even though he is a Regent, UT refused to provide him information. Some information he sought apparently related to special favors UT may have performed for legislators, including preferential admissions of children (which got the president of the University of Illinois fired a few years ago).   Not wanting dirty linen publically aired and wanting to shut down annoying board oversight, the pro-Powers lobbying effort got the Legislature to pass a bill eliminating the Regent's ability to fire Powers, an effort wisely vetoed by Governor Rick Perry. So they mounted an effort to impeach Hall, who so far has fended off the attacks.

Since this is Texas, far more important things than mere academic reputation or a presidency are at stake:  will the school's top paid employee, the football coach, Mack Brown, be fired?  Powers likes him, although others want him gone because his 2013 team (8 wins, 4 losses) only matches the school's good but not stellar academic ranking.

Governing boards sometimes excessively meddle in administrative matters, such as trying to hire or fire football coaches. Yet the bigger problem is the opposite: typically they uncritically rubber stamp administrative initiatives, serving as cheerleaders rather than insuring accountability.  In UT's case, with a huge constitutionally provided endowment, the notion that the institution should face little or no accountability to the democratic political process strikes me as the height of irresponsibility, leading to terrible abuses.                 

And this is not just a Texas problem: a member of the University of North Carolina governing board recently bitterly complained to me that he too has difficulty getting even basic information in a timely manner. Maybe that school's scandal over non-existent courses for athletes would have been avoided had the board been involved. The hardball tactics used to fight legitimate criticism outrageous at a university aspiring to become great.  And certainly the Regents should periodically determine who will captain the ship.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

(Photo: UT President Bill Powers. Credit: Texas Tribune.)



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