At his first meeting as chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System, Gene Powell made some statements that were quite remarkable. Traditionally regents support the agenda of university leaders and try to keep politicians from interfering with the academic mission. Powell’s remarks, quoted by Statesman reporter Ralph M. K. Haurwitz, gave every indication that he intended to advance the cost-cutting agenda of Governor Rick Perry at the university’s expense. He clamped a muzzle on UT administrators who might take their case for more funding to the Capitol, saying they should “remain positive” when approaching members of the Legislature. That means we won’t be hearing any more statements like this one from UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa: “[The] proposed reductions would have immediate and future devastating consequences for our students, patients, faculty, staff and the communities of Texas.” Powell’s most remarkable comment, which has received widespread attention, inside the UT community and throughout the state, came in support of Perry’s call for a $10,000 baccalaureate degree, including textbooks and fees. “Using a car analogy,” Haurwitz wrote of Powell’s remarks, “he said a $10,000 degree would be more like a Chevrolet Bel Air, a midlevel vehicle from a generation ago, than a Cadillac. There’s nothing wrong with a Bel Air-quality education, he said.” That’s not what the Texas Constitution says. It calls for a Cadillac. Article VII, Sec. 10 says, “The legislature shall as soon as practicable establish, organize and provide for the maintenance, support and direction of a University of the first class, to be located by a vote of the people of this state, and styled “The University of Texas, for the promotion of literature, and the arts and sciences….” Apparently Powell realized that his comments had set off great consternation inside the UT community, and on March 9 he set about doing damage control. In a mass-circulated e-mail labeled “One Month Update” (I received a copy from a professor), Powell wrote: Few comments that I made in the past month generated more discussion than when I suggested we may need to offer students the option of a solid, high-quality yet low-cost degree – a Bel Air rather than a Cadillac. This comment had nothing to do with U. T. Austin. Rather, I was talking about the cost of various four-year undergraduate degrees we offer across the System. Austin delivers a great Cadillac and needs to continue to do so as our flagship. Several of our universities deliver very good Olds 98s and Buick LeSabres. But for tens of thousands of students, many who are first-generation college students, we need to offer within the System an excellent no frills, low-cost undergraduate degree – or what I referred to as the basic Bel Air. That is one of the benefits of being a System – one size doesn’t fit all. Excellence at U. T. Austin must include strengthening and expanding its world-class research while excellence at U. T. Pan American must include serving thousands of first-generation college students who often work while attending college and frequently need a different level of assistance. This is a hopeful sign; in fact, I see nothing here to disagree with. Powell realized the damage he had done and set out to mitigate it. I think he assuaged a lot of fears, for the moment. But the situation at UT remains dicey. Perry has an ideological agenda for UT and Texas A&M, created by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, that is not consistent with the educational mission of a Tier One university. At some point, Powell is going to have to decide whose side he is on–the governor’s, or the university’s? I think I know which way to bet. [For a YouTube video of Powell addressing a high-level meeting at UT about his future plans for the System, click HERE].
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