I have restrained myself in commenting on the controversies at The University of Texas at Austin over the past several years because I have not been close enough to the facts to be entirely credible in my opinions. Even now I am not to be considered an insider, but I have gathered enough intelligence in conversations with several true insiders, including current and recent former members of the Board of Regents and other principal players in the drama that has unfolded, to form some reasonable views.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am an alumnus of UT-Austin, an enthusiastic supporter, a long-time member of its Chancellor’s Council of significant long-term contributors, and have served on several advisory boards and committees of various colleges of the university.
Having spent time on several occasions with President Bill Powers and having observed his leadership of UT, I have enormous respect for his accomplishments, although I have not agreed with all of his policy decisions and have expressed myself to him on several of these points. But I must say that, based on the hard evidence that has been made public to date, I do not believe that his alleged transgressions rise to the level of his dismissal. However, the recent compromise in his resignation effective in June 2015 is probably prudent, given the level of the current turmoil and divisiveness over his stewardship.
Having said that, I also believe that members of the Board of Regents should not be constrained in their pursuit of the facts and their fiduciary responsibility for governance, that Regent Wallace Hall has been unduly criticized in the proper exercise of his fiduciary duties, and that the Texas Legislature is out of bounds in pursuing impeachment proceedings of a Regent who is properly discharging these duties.
Higher education in this country is under enormous pressure to revisit the norms that have guided its development over the past century. We are in a period of re-examination of the standards of excellence, particularly of the research-based model that was imported from Germany in the late 19th century and that resulted in the formation of our governing and accreditation models that persist today. This re-examination process, along with the forces of “creative destruction” that naturally follow the advance of technology in delivery systems and the dynamics of competition, will produce enormous changes in the higher education landscape. In that spirit and with recognition of that reality, the controversial “seven breakthrough solutions” for higher education reform proposed by Jeff Sandefer in 2008, which helped to spark the current controversy, however radical as dismissed by some, should have been worthy of at least a mature discussion.
After all, for all of its success, The University of Texas at Austin is not immune to this re-examination and this transformation, and the sooner the administration, the faculty, and the “circle the wagons” alumni crowd recognize this reality, the better. In spite of the obvious clash of personalities and the current political theater, this is the underlying theme of the drama at UT-Austin and the long-term issue that must be dealt with by its leadership succession.