They’re Firing the Wrong


Leonard Zwelling

         Like an interminable academic soap opera, the drama of “Game
of Regents” goes on. Now, according to the Houston Chronicle, out-going
Chancellor Cigarroa has delivered an ultimatum to popular UT-Austin President
William Powers. “Resign or be fired.”

is my presumption that Cigarroa has the backing of both the Board of Regents,
his bosses, and the Governor in his quest to remove the ex-UT Law School Dean
from the position he has held leading the UT flagship since 2006. This will
presumably occur prior to the Board finding Cigarroa’s replacement. Whoever
comes next as Chancellor will have one less dirty job to do.

course, we don’t know if the same phrase was said to Dr. Cigarroa and if so by

Regent Hall, who the Legislature may try to impeach, has been in a running gun
battle with Powers and his supporters that has turned Austin into the OK Corral
(or UT-Austin into the Alamo). According to the Chronicle, Powers is more
popular than ever with students and alumni and is trying to negotiate an
extension of his presidency at least until the end of the 2015 Legislative
session to complete work he has started. 

all this looks different on the ground in Austin. From my vantage point in
Houston, the Regents are going after the wrong President. Powers has not been
accused or been found guilty of any wrong-doing as far as I can tell and surely
has not been associated with accusations of nepotism, favoritism, self-dealing,
conflict of interest or bullying let alone a complete disregard for the concept
of shared governance in an academic institution and the shredding of his
institution’s promotion and tenure process. Of course, one of Mr. Powers’
fellow presidents has all of the qualifications listed above as a requisite
resume for dismissal by the Regents, but this seems unlikely to occur, though I
don’t know why not. I guess the Regents who are mostly men simply cannot say ‘we’re
lost, we’re wrong, we’re sorry.’

have been watching dramas unfold at UT for 30 years now and they always baffle
me. First, every time it seems the UT System really has some great leadership,
that person is shuffled off somewhere or other for reasons that are never quite
clear. Second, the Regents are still groping with reasons why the UT System has
never attained the lofty reputation of the California system and parlayed its
excellence into intellectual property and Burnt Orange-Ade to compete with the University of Florida’s Gatorade.  The answer to that is simple.
The golden goose for Texas is biomedical innovation and biotech, but the great
university and the great hospitals are over 100 miles apart and neither the
State Legislature nor the Regents can come to grips with the fact that Austin
ain’t Houston when it comes to medical excellence and research. Go ahead. Build
another medical school and tell me how that goes.

15 years ago, I was asked to speak to some visiting legislators and describe
what I thought it would take to create a San Diego, or San Francisco, or
Boston-like environment for biomedical innovation in Texas. I said then,
“invest $2 billion into U of H.”

I would make it $3 or 4 billion. Houston has a great university called Rice. It
has a big one called U of H.  It seemed
to me then and now much easier to turn a big one into a great, big one than a
great one into a big, great one. U of H has made amazing progress in the past
few years, but it still probably cannot team up with the Texas Medical Center
just yet to be a biotech incubator, which is most unfortunate. Imagine if the
combined efforts of the TMC and U of H were brought together using the land
resources of U of H and the South Campus plus an extra $3B.

the same time I was advocating for major investment in U of H, I was also
pushing for a TMC monorail a la Disneyworld. I was largely ignored then. Can
you imagine getting from South Campus to the Clark Clinic in 10 minutes for a
seminar?  It should have been reality by
now. Mickey Mouse ears were optional.

love Texas and I love Houston and I wouldn’t live anywhere else as long as I
have the choice, but it saddens me greatly to see opportunity after opportunity
slip away in a state known for bold vision and bolder action. Why has the UT
System been so timid and so unable to do the right thing so often? Is it just
too political to be useful? To be competitive? To be the center of a biotech

wait. That was CPRIT and look what the MD Anderson President did to that and
yet, he goes on…. 

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