Old College Try

The chairman of the UT Board of Regents on the fog of war and the future of higher ed.

June 2013By Comments

Photograph by Jeff Wilson

JAKE SILVERSTEIN: You became a regent in 2009, and you were elected chairman in 2011. What were your expectations of the job?

GENE POWELL: Higher education in America is undergoing a huge transformation, so I realized that we would be in the middle of that. I’m an entrepreneur, and this is a board made up of entrepreneurs. This is not the type of board you would have seen ten years ago. 

JS: Which would have been more . . . 

GP: More of a corporate board, probably slower-working, more deliberative. This is just a different board for different times. They’re smart, they work hard, they don’t ponder a lot, they make good decisions. This board moves at a very rapid pace. 

JS: How do you rate the work that this group of regents has done in the past couple of years?

GP: In a word, outstanding. If you get past the fog of war, I do not believe that any system of higher education in America has accomplished what the UT System has in the past 24 months. We’ve got a new medical school for Austin and a new university in South Texas that will be the second-largest Hispanic-serving institution in America. We brought MyEdu, the student counseling software, to the system. We put up $105 million for a new engineering building at UT-Austin. We now have several $10,000 degrees across the system. We started developing MOOCs [massive open online courses] and joined edX [a platform for offering MOOCs] and formed the Institute for Transformational Learning. I could go on for an hour. We’ve never seen a productivity period this big. 

JS: You mentioned the fog of war. There is a lot of outstanding work to point to, but there have also been some intense conflicts between the board and UT-Austin, between the board and the Legislature. How would you characterize the nature of these conflicts? 

GP: I came to the chairmanship along with three new regents [Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall, and Brenda Pejovich]. We were not known to the public, and people who care about UT-Austin became very concerned. When I mentioned blended online learning, the first response was “The chairman wants to make us a diploma mill. He’s going to cheapen the university by wanting higher enrollment and lower tuition.” People started to email their friends, the Texas Exes got in on it, and before long, people started to attack us. 

JS: Would you agree that this conflict is between folks who are trying to advance reforms and folks who are resistant to those reforms? 

GP: Well, I wouldn’t brand them as reforms. The reform movement in America is a very viable and big movement. But I don’t mark us down as part of that. What we are, I guess, is our own reform movement, and I think the individuals who are resistant to change are people who probably have not spent a lot of time studying higher education like we have. I’m not being derogatory; I’m just saying that people go about their daily lives and then hear some story about something the regents are considering, and they say, “Oh, my gosh, that’s horrible! They’re gonna make us take all courses online!” 

JS: Let me ask you about that. Recently three prominent alumni put out a video that accuses Governor Rick Perry and the regents of tearing down UT. 

GP: Notice that the video is all rumor, innuendo, and inference. They don’t accuse us of one factual thing. The facts show that this board wants UT-Austin to be the number one public institution in America. And we have put our money where our mouth is. I defy anyone to find an institution of higher learning that in the past two years has had a board lavish more good things on it than UT-Austin. 

JS: That video also intimates that the conflicts between UT and Governor Perry, an A&M grad, are a version of the old Longhorns-Aggies rivalry. I want to give you a chance, as someone who played for Darrell Royal, to put that idea to rest. 

GP: The governor has been one of the greatest advocates for higher education in the state’s history. He wants both Texas A&M and the University of Texas to be the greatest schools in the nation. He’s never told me how to do things, who to hire, who to fire, how to run an organization. He calls me occasionally on a Sunday night and says, “How are you doing? You guys are getting beat up over there.” And I laugh. I say, “Governor, I’m fine.” 

JS: You mentioned the medical school earlier, which is a good example of a deal where the board and the Legislature worked smoothly together. This session, relations have not gone as smoothly.

GP: They were not smooth in 2011 either. It took me months to get rid of all the whelps.

JS: Seems like it’s more than whelps this time around. What can be done to put this all to bed and move forward? 

GP: Look, let’s stipulate that the Legislature is a great partner of the system, has been for many years. I have no negative things to say about the Legislature. They have constituents who are emotionally engaged with the university, and they’re making a lot of noise. Three of the regents [Cranberg, Hall, and Pejovich] have been making the rounds at the Capitol, which they’ve not done before. They’ve been going to see people to show them they don’t have horns.

JS: Is that an acknowledgement that the board could have done better at reaching out to the Legislature in the first place? 

GP: For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been in town every session. I’ve learned from wiser heads about how it works in the big pink building. I don’t think the new regents really recognized the need to communicate with the members.

JS: I wonder if we could talk about some of the reforms themselves. Accessibility is a goal that you’ve mentioned. Why is it important? 

GP: In America we’ve always had a provider-driven model: The provider builds the brick-and-mortar location. The student comes to the location to get the degree. It’s an elite model. To get there, [an applicant] has to have funding or an extreme talent in some area. The average student, who has to work to take care of siblings or parents or to provide for themselves—he can’t get there. 

JS: And online learning is a tool to make schools accessible to these students? 

GP: My wife and I have a ranch down near Charlotte, and a couple of years ago we go to breakfast, and I’m talking to the young lady who’s waiting on me, and she tells me she’s taking courses online through A&M-Commerce, and she was so excited. And I said, “Dulce, you know the traditionalist would tell you that you’re being cheated because you’re not having a campus experience.” She said, “Mr. Powell, being cheated is [having] no degree at all.” And I thought, “Wow.” She didn’t have that option. So those people who want to preclude those students from having an option are just wrong. We are not going to back away, and I am not going to apologize for the things that we are doing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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