There’s the War on College, and then there’s Rick Perry’s war on the University of Texas

Daniel W. Drezner
July 8
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry listens to members of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security on Thursday in McAllen, Texas. (Gabe Hernandez/The Monitor via AP)

As the War on College continues, it’s worth taking look at a most peculiar front, which is Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s ongoing feud with University of Texas President Bill Powers.  See, back in May 2008, Perry (R) hosted a higher education summit for the state’s top regents and administrators, using ideas from the Texas Public Policy Foundation designed to implement seven “breakthrough solutions” in higher education, such asrating professors, based on student assessments; separating teaching and research; and including revenue as one measure of whether a program or class should continue.”   He later proposed that a four-year degree at a Texas state school cost no more than $10,000, which sounds great until you contemplate how that’s fiscally possible.

These ideas have received a mixed (but not entirely negative) reaction among education wonks, which is actually consistent with Perry’s overall political record in Texas — he’s not the caricature that he seemed to be during the 2012 GOP presidential primary, but he’s not exactly the conservative Bill Clinton either when it comes to being a wonk as well as a politico.  From a political perspective, however, what’s interesting is that Powers has thwarted Perry’s efforts to implement his agenda at the University of Texas at Austin.  This has led to lots and lots and lots of stories about Texas A&M alum Perry’s ongoing feud with Powers.  Perry is now a lame duck governor; Powers remains UT’s president, for now.

Which brings us up to this weekend.  As Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik reports:

Reports started circulating Friday — in what faculty critics are calling a “July 4 coup” — that Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System, had told Powers to either resign or face dismissal by the Board of Regents. The reports said that Powers has said that he is willing to talk about a retirement plan, but not to quit immediately. While UT system and Austin officials are not commenting on the reports, two anonymous sources with knowledge of the discussions confirmed to Inside Higher Ed both the ultimatum given to Powers and his response.

Faculty leaders are demanding that Cigarroa and the board stop trying to oust Powers, and have called a special faculty meeting for Wednesday to plot strategy….

Cigarroa’s reversal, when he has already announced his plans to leave the system chancellorship, has set off competing theories of why he would move against Powers now.

Conservative bloggers — who have been critical of Powers — are attributing the shift to what they have called an “admissions scandal” at UT. The first entity to report that Powers could lose his job in the coming week was Breitbart, which has defended a controversial University of Texas regent, Wallace Hall. Hall is currently facing possible impeachment in the Texas House of Representatives for investigations of Powers that many legislators believe have crossed the line from oversight to a witch hunt. Hall’s supporters have said that he is being punished for drawing attention to letters written by legislators on behalf of applicants to UT Austin….

[Power's supporters] believe the push against Powers now is because of timing: If Powers leaves now, the search for his replacement will at least be started by and possibly finished by a board dominated by close allies of Governor Perry. Board members who are Perry appointees have, in many of the public systems in Texas, been influential in appointing non-academic leaders to key positions in higher education.

It’s safe to say that both former and current faculty as well as UT alumni are lining up to support Powers, and it’s far from clear whether Perry/Cigarroa will succeed in this endeavor.

Full disclosure:  As a professor, I find Perry’s ideas genuinely intriguing but the operationalization of most of those ideas to be God-awful.  A world in which the only thing that matters for professional advancement is student evaluations is a world grade inflation run amok.

What I find interesting, however, is the contrast between conservative objections to President Obama’s “abuses” of executive power and Perry’s use of his gubernatorial power in the state of Texas.  To be fair, the governor of Texas has weaker executive authority than the president.  Perry’s long duration in office, however, has allowed him to populate every board and commission in the state with his close allies.  This has inevitably led to investigations into whether he has abused the powers of his office.

In 2012, you could argue that Perry was perfectly positioned to bridge the gap of many divisions within the GOP.  I’m not sure that’s still the case.  But should Perry manage to capture the GOP nomination in 2016 — and it’s still possible — it’ll be fun to see how well the congressional wing of the GOP pivots from implacable opposition to the use of executive power to an embrace of Perry’s kind of tactics.

Oh, and how the Democrats will execute the reverse pirouette.

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