Which is more challenging: performing a liver transplant on a small child or navigating the political rapids of public higher education during the reign of Gov. Rick Perry?
Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, who will leave his job as chancellor of the University of Texas System when his successor is chosen, would probably say his current job is tougher — which is why he’s going back to doing transplants on little kids. At least it’s easier to know when you succeed.
The strain of the UT job, which Cigarroa has held since 2009, showed up on the July 4weekend, when he demanded that UT-Austin President Bill Powers resign effective in October or chance being fired at an upcoming meeting of UT’s board of regents.
Powers refused the ultimatum and counteroffered to resign effective June 2, 2015. That, he said, would be less precipitous, allow him to be on the job through the next year’s regular session of the Texas Legislature, and try to reach a fund-raising goal of $3 billion.
Most of the university community sided with Powers, including students, faculty, and alumni.
The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education is a high-powered bunch of UT alumni and donors that formed in 2011 in the wake of apparent efforts of Regent Walter Hall to get Powers fired. On July 7, it pleaded for Cigarroa to accept Powers’ offer to quit next year, saying its members were “profoundly disturbed” by Cigarroa’s “surprise ultimatum.”
The fact that the ultimatum was “leaked to a political activist supportive of Regent [Walter] Hall and Gov. Rick Perry is deeply troubling and has no place in the governance of one of our state’s most important institutions,” the coalition statement said.
It praised Powers on several fronts, including for achieving “record-breaking philanthropic giving” and recruitment of world-class faculty.
“As evidenced by his offer of a graceful departure at the end of the legislative session and academic year,” the coalition statement continued, “President Powers has consistently acted in the best interests of the university, while others seem more interested in fostering dissent and destruction. UT Austin is a Texas treasure invested in and owned by the people of Texas. It is our sincere hope that the chancellor will veer from this current course and work collaboratively with President Powers on a productive timeline for departure.”
Fortunately for just about everyone, including Cigarroa, he wisely swallowed his pride and accepted the gradual phase-out Powers proposed. The power group praised the kumbaya outcome.
“We are grateful that our leaders were able to come together and put the interests of our great university first by allowing a thoughtful, responsible, and orderly transition of leadership,” the group’s July 9 statement said.
Meanwhile, the investigation continues by a special Texas House select committee on agency transparency, appointed by Speaker Joe Straus to see whether Regent Hall’s demands for a huge number of UT e-mail communications was a “get-Powers” witch hunt that warranted his impeachment.
An interesting sidebar in the Cigarroa/Powers/Hall saga was that on July 1, the new president of the Texas Exes began her one-year term: former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who challenged Perry unsuccessfully in 2010 for the Republican nomination for governor.
Hutchison, who was a cheerleader at UT and got her law degree there, had strongly backed Powers. Perry, who appointed Hall, defended and praised him after the House committee voted 7-1 to continue pursuing impeachment.
In a joint statement with Texas Exes Chairman Charles Matthews, Hutchison praised Cigarroa and Powers.
“Over the last week, each leader has risen above personal differences to assure the interests of UT were the first consideration,” the statement said. “Allowing President Powers to finish what he has started will ensure a successful year for UT and an orderly transition through the next legislative session.”
Veteran Texas political journalist Dave McNeely can be reached at email@example.com.