The years-long brawl between the University of Texas System Board of Regents and UT-Austin President Bill Powers may be coming to a conclusion this week. Word broke on Friday—July 4th, when few Texans were paying attention to the news—that the regents were moving to sack Powers.
His firing could come as soon as Thursday’s regents meeting, though quite a few are rallying to save him—it’s rare to see Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and former Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on the same side of an issue. For much of the last year, both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have attempted to stymie the regents’ efforts to depose Powers, including impeachment proceedings for Regent Wallace Hall. But it may be all for naught.
That has huge consequences for the future of the UT System. But how we got to this point—the meandering way a relatively simple power struggle over education policy turned into a years-long bureaucratic trench fight—says a lot about the way politics is conducted in Texas, and not much about Powers himself.
The tactics employed by the anti-Powers coalition, most notably by the groups associated with the conservative powerbroker Michael Quinn Sullivan, have been used on dozens of candidates. All’s fair in politics. But knocking off a (popular) university president feels different, and if they’re successful, it’s a sign that no one, and no institution in the state, is safe from the sprawling blitzkrieg that’s consumed Texas political life.
Though it seems to be infrequently mentioned in a lot of the relevant commentary, the fight between the regents and Powers began for completely different reasons than the ones being debated now. The regents’ efforts to dislodge Powers come in the middle of a years-long fight over the direction of public universities in Texas, which pits a number of right-wing higher ed activists against nearly everyone else.
The first stages of that fight are chronicled in an excellent Texas Monthly story from October 2012. The short of it: An Austin oilman and investor named Jeff Sandefer had a series of long-standing resentments and disputes with the University of Texas, where he once taught in the business school. He, and a number of other wealthy businessmen pulled together in the orbit of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing advocacy organization with a direct line to Gov. Rick Perry. The group sought to make higher ed run more like a business, with a smaller, harder-working faculty, cheaper tuition and less emphasis on unprofitable departments. (Picture an Austin with fewer film students and more petroleum engineers.)
Perry loved their ideas, and appointed the “reform” cohort’s fellow travelers to leadership positions within A&M and UT. They tried to implement their ideas first at A&M, Perry’s alma mater. Among other alienating moves, the reformers made lists of A&M’s faculty, calculating how much money each had generated for the university. Teach lectures with hundreds of kids in an auditorium, and you’d earned your salary—spend time in small groups, or in research labs, and you hadn’t. The A&M fight, too, went on for years.
When they came for UT, the faculty—and many of the university’s alumni—were suitably freaked out from the beginning. Members of the UT Board of Regents made assurances that it wouldn’t try to alter the fundamental character of the university, but the regents’ opponents pointed to their cohort’s past work and statements—that university research efforts provided little of worth, for example. The school’s faculty and alumni feared a more utilitarian approach to college education would cheapen UT’s name and reputation. It fell to Powers, the president of UT’s flagship campus since 2006, to resist the reform agenda.
For several years, it seemed like a stalemate. Members of the Board of Regents, appointed by the governor, were determined to overhaul the system, but unable to do so without the control or consent of UT’s top officers. The regents talked occasionally about firing Powers, but never followed through. In 2012, Teresa A. Sullivan, the widely-liked president of the University of Virginia, was fired for her failure to comply with similar reform efforts, but was swiftly reinstated as a result of demands from faculty and alumni. The lesson from Virginia must have been clear to the Texas regents. If they wanted to fire Powers, they needed to find another reason. And they seemed confident that they would. In early 2013, Hall was in talks with Alabama football coach Nick Saban. Wallace Hall told Saban that Powers would be out of a job by year’s end, an assurance that must have done wonders for Saban’s estimation of UT’s stability.
So, over the course of the last year, they cast around for a reason to fire Powers until they found one. During this whole sordid process, the Legislature had stood firmly behind Powers. Wasn’t it a scandal, Powers’ opponents said, that during this time legislators had written letters of recommendation for friends and family applying to the university? Had Powers helped legislators in exchange for their support? The campaign always seemed thin, but it rumbled on regardless. UT is currently investigating the allegations of improper influence.
So the anti-Powers coalition pivoted, and with a little effort, they recast the whole episode into a more sympathetic narrative. Any mention of the debate over UT’s direction was excised from the stories they wrote. Powers, they started to say, was a fat-cat ally of the fat-cat Legislature. He was a relentlessly corrupt influence peddler, part of the Establishment’s machine. And Regent Wallace Hall, who led the anti-Powers effort, was a bold truth-seeker and whistleblower who had charged, like a lion, into UT’s den of iniquity and emerged triumphant with the terrible, awful truth.
If that new narrative sounds familiar, that’s partly because the effort was led by the amorphous messaging machine around Michael Quinn Sullivan, and his network of organizations, which now seems to have expanded to annex the conservative content aggregator Breitbart Texas. Sullivan used the same Manichean language he’s used in his other crusades in the UT fight, to great effect—he even appointed Powers an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus, his hated enemy. When word first broke on Friday that Powers might be canned, it was Sullivan that wrote it up for Breitbart in an article heavy on anonymous sources.
And his approach went national. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which seems, when it comes to Texas, to be the end point of a pneumatic tube that delivers talking points directly from Sullivan’s office, wrote about the fight in exactly the terms Sullivan outlined. Hall, the Journal wrote, was a crusader that had tried his level best to “root out potential wrongdoing at the university,” and had been penalized by a corrupt and mendacious legislature.
If Powers goes down, he’ll only be the latest public figure to be taken down this way. This playbook–find a hidden flank and relentlessly attack it, sling mud, perpetuate gross distortions and substitute issues of your choosing for the things that are really at stake—has helped the groups attacking Powers knock off dozens of primary candidates and legislators in recent years. They’ve transformed not only the state’s political landscape, but how the state does politics.
But Powers isn’t a politician—he’s outside the political system, ostensibly, though his situation has become increasingly politicized in recent years. Sullivan and his allies specialize in covering up power plays with the cloak of principled opposition. They supported an accused wife-beater against Republican state Sen. Bob Deuell in this year’s Republican primary because Deuell had been insufficiently subservient to Sullivan’s organizations. Instead of saying that, they settled on a lie—Deuell was a pro-choice liberal—and repeated it ad nauseam, until, on election day, he crumbled.
Now, the mau-mauers appear to be expanding their successful campaign to the Forty Acres. If they succeed in picking off the popular leader of a major public institution like UT Austin, that sets a dangerous precedent.