The Gene Powell Interview: Part One

The University of Texas Board of Regents chairman on the fog of war, the battles over higher education, and the future of learning.
Thu May 16, 2013 8:00 am
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

This is part one of a two-part interview. Part two can be found here, and a condensed version of the entire interview can be found in the June issue of Texas Monthly. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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

GENE POWELL: I knew that it was going to be a tremendous amount of work. Higher education in America is undergoing a transformation and is under a huge amount of pressure. And so I realized that we would be in the middle of that. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m used to very long hours, weekends, a lot of decision making. The board is full of entrepreneurs, hardworking people, and it moves at a very rapid pace. Long days and long nights. 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, more of a removed board, probably a slower working, more deliberative board. This is not a better board, it’s just a different board for different times. Primarily you have entrepreneurs—they’re smart, they work quick, they work hard, they don’t ponder a lot, they make good decisions, they make them quick. If they make a mistake on a decision, they go back and fix it. I don’t know if you know this: by law, we are to be the people’s representatives. We’re not to be academicians, we’re not to be administrators, but we’re to be the people’s representatives. So we’re here as the people’s representatives. What would the people in Texas have us do? What would they have us investigate? What would they ask questions about? What would they do about lowering costs? And you know, when I get outside of Austin and I travel the state, people tell me every day, “Thank you for what you’re doing. Now my Susie can take her courses online.” Or, “You’ve held costs down at Pan American and we really needed that last year because things were tough in South Texas.” And so the people outside the fog of war are extremely appreciative of what the board’s doing.

JS: So how do you rate the work that this group of regents has done in the last couple of years?

GP: In a word, outstanding. Outstanding. If you get past the fog of war, I would say to you that 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. I could go on for an hour.

JS: You mentioned the fog of war. There is a lot of outstanding work to point to, but these have also been some difficult years. Some intense conflicts have broken out between the board and UT-Austin, between the board and the Legislature. How would you characterize the nature of these conflicts? What are they about?

GP: I think the very first thing is, go back to my becoming chairman in February 2011. I came to the chairmanship along with three regents coming to the board [Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall, and Brenda Pejovich]. At the time, we were not known to the public. UT-Austin alums and people who care deeply about UT-Austin became very concerned. So I would say the very first thing that happened was a great deal of fear from alumni, and the administration, and the staff. This fear created a group of assumptions that everybody started to hypothesize about. "Here are these new regents. What are they going to do?" When I mentioned blended online learning, the first response was, “Well, the chairman wants to turn us into the University of Phoenix or make us a diploma mill. He’s going to cheapen the university by wanting more enrollment or lower tuition. He wants to separate teaching from research. He doesn’t like research. The board doesn’t like research. They’re going to do away with all research dollars for the arts or the humanities.” These are just samples of what happened. So we had this fear, we had these assumptions. People then started to email their friends, and the Texas Exes got in on it, and before long the assumptions became almost set in concrete. And then an attack developed. People started to attack us because they were convinced that we had been sent here to do things. A lot of people believe we were sent to fire Bill Powers. A lot of people thought we were sent to fire Francisco Cigarroa. So you had all these attacks going on. And then the next year, in 2012, the attack got stepped up. It became a professional attack by a professional PR firm.

JS: Are you talking about the Coalition for the Advancement of Higher Education?

GP: Well, whoever. But I know that someone’s paying a professional PR firm between $200,000 and $300,000 a year to attack us. But I knew that making changes in the way we operate to face the new environment around higher education in America was going to be difficult. Change is always difficult.

JS: So would you agree with the characterization that this conflict is between folks who are trying to advance reforms and who are resistant to those reforms? Is that a useful frame?

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 the reform movement. What we are, I guess, is our own reform movement, and I think

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