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UT Alum Alleges Perry, Regents Going After Pres. Powers "Because we can."

The battle over higher education reform continues to become more personal as a prominent UT Alum steps up and defends UT-Austin President William Powers.

Erich Schlegel

Former Ambassador and prominent University of Texas alum Pam Willeford has joined in the public defense of UT-Austin President Wiliam Powers.

Willeford (who was recently appointed by Powers to the search committee looking for a new Athletics Director at UT) fired off a blast email defending Powers after Jeff Sandefer, a proponent of higher education reform and a substantial supporter of Gov. Rick Perry attacked University leadership in a guest column in the Dallas Morning News.

Sandefer had blasted UT-Austin for dropping from 46th to 52nd in the U.S. News & World Report's annual university rankings. Sandefer also intimated that political influence has been used in the admissions process and challenged the "UT chancellor, regents and attorney general (to) have enough integrity to look deeply into UT-Austin's admission policies, " adding, "If there's any kind of cover-up underway, Texans deserve the truth."

Willeford, a former chairperson for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, fired back in her email claiming that in 2011 the Chief of Staff to Gov. Perry admitted that they were going after UT President Powers.

Two years ago, when I asked why Governor Perry and the regents were going after UT-Austin and its president, I was told by his Chief of Staff "because we can." Maybe they can, but they certainly shouldn't!

This battle over the types and depth of reforms in higher education - specifically at the State's Flagship University -has been going on for years. It has many twists and turns in the road but if you want to understand the argument being put forward by those who support President Powers and believe that the reforms proposed by Sandefer and Gov. Perry would inflict great harm on the University of Texas, Pam Willeford's email provides a concise and coherent version.

Here is an excerpt:

I am a long-time advocate for quality higher education in the state of Texas - not just at UT-Austin, where I was privileged to attend, but at ALL of our state's institutions. As many of you know, I was on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for eight years from 1995-2003, and I served as its chair for five of those years. It was during that time that Jeff Sandefer, a very large contributor to then-Lieutenant Governor Perry and later to Governor Perry, started trying to sell his particular views on higher education policy.

Sandefer's "Seven Breakthrough Solutions" for re-inventing higher education were later introduced at a 2008 conference convened by Governor Perry. In the "Solutions" - which are neither breakthrough nor solutions - you will see a lot of business school words like measurement, efficiency, accountability and financial incentives. Sandefer views students as customers and schools as businesses. Academic excellence is barely mentioned. In my view, any legitimate agenda for higher education should have at its core academic excellence. Certain business principles certainly should and do apply to higher education but many do not because of the complicated and unique realities of an academic institution.

Boards of Regents should set broad policy, and the chancellors, presidents, administrators and professors - those who are in the trenches every day and know what works - should then be allowed to teach, research and administer their institutions without micromanagement by those regents...

... In place of the laser-like and malicious focus on UT-Austin, the UT System Board of Regents should concentrate on the aspiring Tier One institutions as well as the smaller regional universities in the System to truly add value and change the future of Texas. These universities are where many students who are the first in their families to go to college are enrolling.  These students are the face and future of our great state---- yet too often they and their institutions seem to be an afterthought.

Instead of lifting up those campuses and spending extra time and attention on them, some of the regents, in particular Regents Powell, Hall, Cranberg and Pejovich, have focused their sights on UT-Austin and its leadership and have engaged in an all-out assault on the flagship.

Collectively, the Board of Regents has done notable things in the last year, including approving the new university in South Texas and the new medical school in Austin. But those accomplishments have been overshadowed by the controversies that its members have intentionally sparked and its leaders have left festering, damaging the morale, the brand and the hard-won reputation of UT-Austin.

I write this as a concerned alumna of UT-Austin and have not been asked to do this by any institution, any leader or any group. I am sending this because I have had enough. And it is time for those of us who do not agree with the egregious behavior of a few well-positioned and well-funded individuals to say that we have had enough! We all should stand up against regents and an un-elected individual with an agenda that is self-serving, arrogant and "gotcha" in its tactics. Our institutions are public treasures - they are not laboratories where high dollar donors and think tanks can experiment.

We believe there is an accelerated timeline to end the presidency of Bill Powers at UT-Austin. He has been an excellent leader and deserves our support. Please do anything and everything you can to send the message that the actions and publicity against UT-Austin and the plan to remove our president are not acceptable: contact the regents, contact the chancellor, contact your legislators, write op-eds, send letters to the editors of your papers, join the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. We are all volunteers and concerned Texans/alumni/students/faculty, and our voices need to be heard.