I walked in the east door of the Capitol yesterday with Senator John Whitmire. He asked if I was going to nominations. I said I was. Then he said, "I told them [the nominated regents], 'Don't even sit down. I know you're on a mission. And you're going to hurt your [reputation] very badly.'"
Kirk Watson carried the questioning in the early going. He got the candidates to agree that they cannot fire the president unilaterally, that the decision to initiate the dismissal of a president belongs to the chancellor alone. (For some background, read Jake Silverstein's exclusive interview with Chairman Gene Powell here.)
Watson asked Paul Foster, who is likely to be the next chairman, "Do you agree with the goals of President Powers?" followed by, "What is your opinion of President Powers?"
Foster said, "He's done an excellent job, but he has been a challenge to the board at times. Firing is not on the radar. It's never been discussed. This has been a big distraction."
Watson: "Never been discussed? Is it your statement you have never heard the governor or anyone else talk about the termination of Bill Powers?" Foster: "[The talk] is mostly on the outside. There is no conspiracy or an effort for a hidden agenda."
Watson turned to an e-mail from "RP" to the regents in which the governor made allusions to the Battle of Bulge and "the fight that is being won." "What is the fight that is being won? asked Watson. "The reforms, the way higher ed works in this state," said Foster.
Watson turned to another e-mail. "It said, 'I keep forgetting that his [Power's] agenda is to be a hero figure and not a doer.'" Watson asked about the requests for documents several regents have made. "Is this a healthy thing for members of the Board of Regents?"
"The level that it is taking place is unhealthy," was Foster's response.
"Have you heard talk about termination?" Watson asked. Foster said that he had heard discussions about a transition, which is separate from a termination. Then Foster said, "His tenure has gone on long enough." Watson focused on the investigation into the forgivable loans offered by the Law School Foundation to senior faculty members. The investigation was done by the general counsel for the system, and the Board rejected it. The most significant thing was whether he could be independent. We felt he couldn't be independent. He shared his conclusions with the Foundation."
"Why not the attorney general's office?" Watson wanted to know. The answer was stunning. "Because the attorney general's office is too closely connected to the UT law school." Really? The paranoia is so great that they don't even trust UT graduates?
Occasionally, one of the newly nominated regents would ask something like, "What is all the controversy about?" I thought everybody on the planet knew what all the controversy is about.
Jeff Hildebrand left little doubt about where he stood: "We must always have people who are team players," he said. The fight on the Board of Regents is "tarnishing the brand," he said, a rather odd statement since the view from UT's perspective is that it is Perry and the regents who are "tarnishing the brand." Hildebrand concluded by saying, "It's time to move on."