By Jim Vertuno
AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers continued Wednesday to question the actions of University of Texas System regents and their pressure on flagship campus President Bill Powers as the Senate considers a bill that would roll back some regents voting authority.
Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, is believed to be fighting for his job with regents appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in an academic showdown that has grabbed the attention of the Legislature.
Powers has drawn public support from the state House and Senate, and the Senate Committee on Higher Education held an initial hearing on a bill that bars regents from voting on personnel and budget matters until they have received training on those issues and been confirmed by the Senate.
Such a move would step on the governor’s ability to make so-called “recess” appointments when the Senate is not in session. Texas lawmakers only meet for 140 days every other year.
“This bill is not about empowerment,” said committee chairman Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, author of the bill, which was left pending without a vote until next week. “It’s about propriety.”
Powers has clashed with the regents for more than two years over tuition, the roles of research and teaching at universities, and other issues. He was believed to have held only a slim majority of support among the nine members, all Perry appointees.
Regent Wallace Hall recently ordered the university to give him copies of all the results of open records requests made to UT-Austin over the past two years. Hall and Regent Brenda Pejovich pushed for a fourth review of a now-defunct law school loan program that was started when Powers was dean. That program came under scrutiny when Powers’ successor received a $500,000 forgivable loan. An investigation by the system recommended abolishing the program but cleared Powers of wrongdoing.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst also has defended Powers, who he has denounced what he called “character assassination” of Powers and his family.
All of those issues have led Seliger and other Senate and House lawmakers to publicly question whether the regents are micromanaging Powers and the Austin campus in an effort to build a case to fire him.
Firing Powers, would be a “terrible mistake,” said Sen. Judith Zaffarini, a Laredo Democrat who has been one of Power’s most vocal supporters.
Powers attended Wednesday’s hearing but did not testify. University system regents so far have not commented on Seliger’s bill.
Wednesday’s testimony included worries from student and alumni leaders that perceived moves to harass or unseat Powers has lowered campus morale and will make it harder to recruit quality student and staff.
Leslie Cedar, CEO and president of the UT alumni association Texas Exes, said she received an email and phone call from a regent who expressed “displeasure” of the organization’s support of Powers and it reporting on the situation to its members. She declined to name the regent or share the email with reporters immediately after the hearing, although several senators said they wanted to see it.
Michael Redding, graduate student body president at UT-Austin, said he hears questions about the tensions between Powers and the regents from colleagues at schools across the country.
“I speak with graduate student body presidents across the country once a month,” Redding said. “And every month (the question is) what’s the matter with Texas?”
Perry recently appointed as new regents Houston oilman and major Perry campaign donor Jeff Hildebrand, and Ernest Aliseda, a McAllen attorney and former state district judge, to six year terms. Hildebrand is a University of Texas graduate. Aliseda is a graduate of Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M University.
Perry also reappointed regents Vice Chairman Paul Foster of El Paso to a new six-year term. None has yet been confirmed by the Senate.