Todd Wiseman / The Texas Tribune
Bill Powers, who served as president of the University of Texas at Austin from 2006 to 2015, has died, according to the university. A school spokesman said he passed away on Sunday from a rare muscle disorder and “complications from a fall several months earlier.” He was 72.
Powers — a Southern California native who joined UT-Austin as a law professor in 1977 and gradually rose through the ranks of university leadership — presided over the state’s top-ranked public university during a period of significant change. His tenure brought the launch of the Dell Medical School and the Longhorn Network on cable TV, as well as an effort to increase the university’s four-year graduation rate to 70 percent — a benchmark the university essentially met last year.
But his tenure will likely be most remembered for his fight to preserve what his supporters commonly referred to as “the soul of the university.”
Beginning about a decade ago, some conservative UT System regents and statewide leaders, led by then-Gov. Rick Perry, began pushing for wide-ranging changes to make UT-Austin function more like a business. Proposals included dramatically increasing enrollment, emphasizing student ratings when evaluating professors and dividing teaching and research budgets at schools to increase transparency.
Powers openly fought those ideas, most of which were deeply unpopular among faculty. He promoted a vision of UT-Austin as an elite public university, where faculty research was valued and enrollment grew at a more natural pace. And, he argued, the fight was not just limited to his school.
“This gets at the core of what is going on across the country,” Powers told The Texas Tribune in 2016. “I think we have aspects of being a business and have aspects of not being a business. You have got to take into account more than just the quarterly losses and profits, but also the contribution for improving knowledge for the benefit of society.”
Powers rallied many students, faculty, alumni and donors to his side, and his advocacy for the university made him popular on campus. But it also frequently put his job at risk. One UT System regent in particular, Wallace Hall, conducted numerous investigations into Powers and the university, requesting more than 800,000 pages of documents from the university. The efforts were highly controversial. Hall was investigated by a select committee of the Texas House and a Travis County grand jury declined to indict Hall but recommended his removal from office.
The inquiry inspired the UT System to hire an outside firm to investigate admissions practices at UT-Austin. The firm found that 73 students had been accepted into UT-Austin over several years over the objections of the admissions office. Some of those students appeared to get in because they had political connections, the report said.
In 2014, amid questions about admissions policies, Powers faced intense pressure to resign. He held onto the job for another 11 months, outlasting the chancellor who had asked for his resignation. By the time he stepped down, Powers was the second-longest-serving president in UT-Austin history — and the voices pushing for major changes at UT-Austin were quieting.
“Bill put every ounce of himself into defending the soul of our university,” said current UT-Austin President Greg Fenves, in a letter to the campus community on Sunday. “He bravely stood up for what was right, and he fought against a view of higher education that would have compromised UT’s constitutional charge to be a ‘university of the first class,’ while setting a dangerous precedent for public research universities across the nation.”
After Powers stepped down in 2015, he returned to the law school and continued to push his vision for the university as a faculty member.
In 2016, when the Texas Exes alumni group honored him as a distinguished alumnus, he described that vision: “It is one of the world’s – yes one of the world’s – great teaching and research universities. We teach the next generation of leaders on a campus that helps discover planets that are orbiting distant stars. That helps understand dark matter. And, yes, even helps us understand even better what Shakespeare is about.”
He added that everyone in the campus community needed to work every day “to keep it that way and to support our great university.”