By Keith McDowell
The Wilding Ygritte’s remonstration of Jon Snow in the popular television series The Game of Thrones reflected more than just a reproof of his general knowledge of sexual matters, but was more a comment on his youthful ignorance of the ways of men and nature. Indeed, the five novels of the A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series written by George R. R. Martin, upon which the television production is based, chronicle the fictional intrigues of both high-born and low-born men and women as they play the power game in the futile hope of controlling their destiny. The good become corrupted by power while the bad show elements of humanity. And best of all, this Easter weekend heralded the beginning of season three.
But the truth be told, we have here in Texas our own live version of The Game of Thrones being played out on a regular schedule. In one corner we find Bill Powers, President of The University of Texas in Austin, and in the other, Gene Powell, Chairman of the Board of the University of Texas Regents, along with several fellow board members. Refereeing the match are members of the Texas Legislature while students, faculty, alumni, donors, Governor Perry, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), and a host of other engaged citizens serve as both handlers and cheerleaders for their respective sides. It’s political drama at its best and at its worst, sure to entertain while producing little of value and ultimately harming UT-Austin as an institution of higher education.
Behind the mask of rhetoric from the participants of being well-intentioned in their actions lies what … a witch hunt, a fishing expedition, an attempt to discredit Powers, a cover-up by university officials of unseemly activities by a foundation, a power struggle between president and governor, an effort by Perry to privatize public universities, the “seven breakthrough solutions” promulgated in 2008, micromanagement by the Regents, arrogance from the university, a hidden political agenda secretly being managed by the TPPF, an attempt to turn UT-Austin into “Training U,” or some other yet-to-be-revealed purpose? Such is the essence of a great story as the audience is left to ponder the next turn of events.
Neither side has shown a great deal of positive leadership in this latest tussle. Certainly, Powers has a record of distinction and achievement as the president, although his creation and initial support of the forgivable loan program from the Law School Foundation was a really dumb idea. I suppose we all get a mulligan every now and then.
Some have accused UT-Austin as an institution of being the bastion of arrogance, even to the point of bullying others. I’ve seen my fair share of that behavior at many levels, but is Powers responsible for that or is it in the Longhorn gene pool? And is that a proper reason for the Regents to focus in a singular manner on UT-Austin?
The Board of Regents at various times in their history have shown true leadership including the Competitiveness Initiative as a response to the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the Texas Ignition Fund, the South Texas Initiative to develop an emerging research university connected with a medical school in the valley, and a positive effort at cost containment, to name a few. But the Regents in more recent times have shown a propensity to cross the bright line of governance and to meddle in operational pursuits.
Do we honestly need another audit of the Law School Foundation and the forgivable loan program, even if done by the Attorney General? Should the Regents be requesting and spending time poring over 40-some box loads of open records documents, especially given the time and effort it took for someone to collect all that information? And how about the carping regarding Powers and the appointment of a VP for fundraising, not to mention the request that Powers and fellow administrators not delete emails – as thought they could actually remove emails in the modern age of IT? Have the Regents reduced themselves to private investigators rooting around metaphorically in university garbage cans looking for evidence of infidelity?
And where in all of this is Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa? In a recent Texas Tribune interview, he gave a sterling endorsement for Power’s performance with respect to his work plan, but artfully dodged commenting on the Regents behavior. Seriously! His work plan? Hmmm, maybe walking a tight rope is the best course, but is that leadership or protecting one’s behind?
UT Austin is a state and national treasure not to be squandered away by petty political bickering and mean-spirited back-stabbing for little gain. Whatever the true reality that lies behind the unfolding drama being played out in the theatre of the absurd, it’s time for the actors to realize that they are but pawns in the greater Game of Thrones and that they will soon pass from the stage, not unlike the characters in Martin’s books. Let’s all hope that they don’t leave behind the ruins of HarrenHal.