What are the perimeters of the power of the UT System Board of Regents, and have the regents overstepped them? These days that question — posed amid speculation that the regents are actively attempting to fire UT President William Powers Jr. — consumes the mental resources of the Texas Legislature, the University administration and faculty, the regents themselves and possibly Gov. Rick Perry, who appoints those regents. The UT students, whose interests are said to be at the heart of this battle, are, for the most part, blissfully (but worryingly) unaware a fight is taking place.
The governor-regent-president soap opera is a commentary on the explicit, compromise-lacking, broken nature of public dialogue today, but it also exposes how the regents and Powers embrace fundamentally different philosophies about this public university’s purpose, how its mission should be accomplished, how the success of accomplishments should be measured and who should pay its bills. The victor will not be the last man standing; all the men standing are due to exit office in a matter of years. Instead we can only hope it will be future taxpayers and students. Ideally, this battle will help address the reason we pay for and attend college at all. Do young people go to college to better themselves or for the benefit of society? What will UT look like in 50 years? How much should it cost to go to college? What job training and education does a college degree offer? Who should get one?
Powers personally believes that an “atmosphere of innovation” is created when administrative forces “get out of the way,” which is what the UT president said during his speech at the recent South by Southwest interactive festival. Powers advocates that as many resources as possible be directed in an intelligent, targeted fashion to undergraduate and graduate education and UT’s research facilities. He asks that endeavors at this University and the caliber of its faculty both be measured by their contributions to their fields. With his confidence of how deserving UT is of vast wealth, Powers has been a proficient fundraiser, raising upwards of $200 million each year he’s been in office. He follows a line of similarly proficient fundraisers who have served as UT presidents. UT undergraduates reap the benefits of this University’s resulting largesse. Because of the fundraising, UT students have school-subsidized trips to other countries, great minds teaching small classes, unmatched accessible scientific research, funding for independent research and a wealth of archives.
The regents have not said they oppose those assets and benefits, but with backgrounds in business and corporate management, they seek funding models that promote efficiency and lower-cost degrees. They want professors who will shoulder heavier teaching loads and put those responsibilities above establishing their research credentials. The regents have made multimillion dollar investments in online educational resources MyEdu and edX, and favor expanding technology in the classroom. And they don’t support raising tuition, even if that means recruiting fewer Nobel Laureates who teach a single class a year yet command six-figure salaries.
The UT student walks unaware between these diverging philosophies, but the ideas of the regents and those of UT’s administration need not clash, despite the currently overheated public discourse. As a governing body and as human beings, the regents are not micromanaging each time they express their position on the University. And the University is not, in fact, a thinking man’s gluttonous picnic desperate for the regents’ corrective attention, but rather a protected space explicitly called for in the Texas Constitution. Today, that university is physically larger, overseeing more enterprises and more populated than ever before. The stakes are higher and the arrival of the Internet poses big questions about its structure, purpose and number of students.
Many of the questions about UT’s future have no obvious answers and the adults in the room leave us hungry for leadership. Neither the regents nor the administration have made an effort to correct public perception that they are engaged in a political fight over personalities, and both groups are careful to speak out under very protected circumstances. UT students attempting to understand the stakes must muddle through only vague references to what is going on. The future of UT is too important for the squabbling and the self-serving obfuscations.