University Champion

CAA 2014 Alumnus of the Year William Powers Jr.
By Adair Lara

You would not have picked 17-year-old William Powers Jr. for a firebrand when he drove his ’55 Chevy to campus in 1963. He was a gangly blue-eyed kid, nervous, certain that everybody was smarter than he was. He was a chemistry major but always avoided raising his hand in class. The Free Speech Movement would start the next year, but he wouldn’t be part of it.

Now at 67, Powers has been president of The University of Texas at Austin, the flagship campus, since 2006. He has been a staunch defender of UT’s affirmative action policies (for details, see the U.S. Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin), and at the center of a raging controversy over the university’s mission and future. For his efforts he has been elected chair of the Association of American Universities, where, said outgoing AAU president Hunter Rawlings, he “will be a leading advocate for the nation’s investments in research and higher education, and in explaining the value of America’s research universities.”

As a champion for public higher education, Powers has also been selected the Cal Alumni Association’s 2014 Alumnus of the Year.

Said Jefferson Coombs, executive director of CAA, “The work he’s done at The University of Texas has become the center of the national conversation. He is fighting to ensure that higher education does not get diluted by short-sighted political views.”

For “short-sighted political views,” consider Texas governor Rick Perry. Perry is on a campaign to get rid of so-called elitist professors and the expensive research labs on the public UT campuses, and turn the system into one that prepares students to get jobs, period. He wants the nine-campus system to be run like a business, with faculty paid according to the revenue they bring in, students treated as customers, a lot less emphasis put on research, and tuition cut to the bone.

In a widely reported 2011 speech to the UT Board of Regents, then chairman and current vice chairman Gene Powell compared the proposed low-cost degree to a Chevy Bel Air, as opposed to the Cadillac degree the university strives to deliver. According to an article in the Austin American-Statesman, he added that there was nothing wrong with a Bel Air–quality education. Powell, like everyone else on the UT Board of Regents, was appointed by Governor Perry.

Powell, in turn, hired Rick O’Donnell to a newly created job as special adviser to the board in February of 2011. O’Donnell was the author of a paper for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, that questioned the need for and usefulness of much of the research that goes on in universities. O’Donnell was a highly controversial hire, in no small part because it came at a time when university budgets were being cut statewide. Six weeks later, O’Donnell was out.

In his January 2011 State of the State address, Perry called for a $10,000 four-year degree program, that includes books, at state universities. Degree plans that loosely match those criteria are available at UT Brownsville, UT Arlington, and UT Permian Basin. Two years ago Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M, rolled out his other idea of running a university like a business: Information was gathered on faculty members and the results put online in a spreadsheet. Professors’ course loads and the income they generated were listed against salaries and benefits. One lecturer, for example, taught 415 students and “made” $279,617 for the university. An assistant professor who spent much of his time setting up a research lab “lost” $45,305.

The experiment proved disastrous. Faculty revolted, many of the reforms were abandoned, the school’s academic reputation slid, and the spreadsheet was promptly taken down. Related or not, a year later the chancellor for the system resigned. Perry and his band of reformers were not dissuaded; they simply turned their attention to UT Austin, the flagship campus of the University of Texas.

Powers was not enthusiastic. Voluminous record requests to the UT administration by the board were ignored. Rebuttals were issued.

Then several regents attempted to oust Powers, in an all-out effort that many have called a vendetta. It started with rumors that the board of regents was going to fire him. Powers was warned not to delete emails. There were various lawsuits, investigations into finances, even scurrilous personal attacks. Texas senator Judith Zaffirini said to The Texas Tribune, “They are really harassing him, making his life miserable, hoping he will resign.”

But Powers did not resign. When the state cut school funding, he raised funds privately. (“We raised $450 million last year—which, for not having a medical school, is a lot of money,” he says.) Faculty supported him in boisterous meetings; students started a social media campaign to “save Bill Powers.”

Instead of closing labs and adding adjunct courses taught by professionals in the field, Powers maintained the school’s signature courses in which senior faculty meet with small groups of freshmen. Such seminars are labor intensive and deemed poor business practice, something Powers cheerfully admits. “A faculty member teaching a class of 300 is 16 times more ‘productive’ than one teaching an 18-student seminar.”

Nor are the seminars designed to help anybody get a job. The course descriptions urge students to branch out: “If you plan to major in business, take Geosciences in the Media. Prospective anthropology major? Try Astronomy and the Humanities. Want to be an engineer? You’ll love the Psychology of Music.”

Powers teaches one of these “unproductive” seminars himself on Tuesday afternoons in one of the libraries on campus. It’s called What Makes the World Intelligible. “It’s about how people make sense of the world. We talk about Plato, Hamlet, Oedipus,” says Powers. “A great college education is not just about getting information.” One can imagine Perry standing on the grass outside the window of Powers’s seminar, fuming.

And the rest of the nation is watching, as well. “There’s a lot of debate now around the country about the affordability of education, and diminished public financial support for higher education,” said Powers during a recent interview. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 75 percent of adults think higher education has become unaffordable—and most believe it’s not worth the skyrocketing costs of tuition. One hears more and more stories of students graduating heavily in debt, equipped with a degree in a world that prefers portfolios.

So the heat is on Powers, and it hasn’t let up yet. It makes one wonder why he hasn’t quit. Other people his age have opted for retirement and spared themselves the aggravation. But when the fight came to him, he stood up.

Where did Powers get the fortitude? His CV offers few clues.

After getting his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Cal and doing a stint in the Navy, Powers went to Harvard Law School. He clerked in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, then taught at The University of Washington School of Law and The University of Texas School of Law, where he became dean. He wrote several legal books, and he was chairman of the committee that wrote a frank report on what went wrong at Enron. Enron was the bankrupt Texas energy company that inflated its stock prices by using deceptive accounting practices to hide giant losses and appear fiscally robust.

“No one anticipated what we would find,” Powers said of Enron’s ethical and financial collapse. “It was a failure of character.”

None of which answers the question of how a thoughtful legal scholar took on the challenge of saving a public university system. Not really. For that we have to return to that gawky kid who arrived on the Berkeley campus in the fall of 1963. He’d come from a modest home in Los Angeles and had been hanging around schools from the age of three because both his parents were school teachers, his dad later a principal of a junior high. He had two older sisters, Susan and Patricia.

Sputnik launched when Powers was in junior high. With the Space Race under way, young Bill discovered an affinity for chemistry and math. “I thought that was all there was to knowledge.”

Then he came to Berkeley and soon realized there was a lot more to a first-class university education. “The courses that most affected me were English literature, art history, poetry. I was not familiar with any of that. And because Berkeley was a world premier research university, I was able to take courses from leading scientists and humanists around the world. There were some history and English teachers that changed the way I looked at literature and the world.”

He still fondly remembers the Norton Anthology he was made to read. “I had known nothing about poetry and realized I could get something out of it.” By the time he graduated four years later, Powers was more interested in reading philosophers than in running chemistry experiments.

He liked Berkeley so much that he sent three of his five children to school here. Two of them are from his first marriage. Matt, 40, is a lawyer in San Francisco; Kate, 38, is an advertising photographer living in Rockridge. Allison, too, went to Cal and is now in a Ph.D. program at Columbia. The two youngest, Annie and Reid, chose to go to the other family alma mater, UT, where Dad has that big job and where mom, Kim Heilbrun, who has been married to her husband for nearly 30 years, got her law degree. A devoted family man, Powers’s hero today is Homer Simpson. He admits that Homer isn’t smart enough to go to UT if standards stay up. “But I like him, because in the end he always goes home to his family.”

“I loved it there,” he said wistfully of his time at Berkeley. “When I grew up, I had a decent high school education. But the world of ideas had not been opened up to me. I showed up on the campus and it changed my life.

“That’s what these great universities do for people. Kids still show up and think they’re the ones who don’t belong. But they do belong. They show up and it changes their lives.”

Adair Lara is a Bay Area columnist and memoir-writing teacher. Her most recent memoir is Naked, Drunk, and Writing.
From the Winter 2013 Information Issue issue of California.
Filed under: Cal Culture
Image source: Photograph by Matt Wright-Steel
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From a UT alum, thank you Berkeley for sending us this great man. He has single handedly saved UT from destruction.
Hook ‘em, President Powers and thanks Berkeley for educating and honoring such a great man. I guess everything they say here about you Californians can’t all be true!
I don’t think I could be any more proud of my Alma Mater and the great man I had the opportunity to have as President throughout my degree. Hook ‘em Horns!
We are Texas. My wife and I met while at school there in the 60’s, our two children also graduated from UT, Nursing and Law school. We believe that President Bill Powers has done great things for the University and would like to see him there for as long as he wants to stay. Certainly longer than we have to put up with Rick Perry and his crony politics.
Berkeley has produced many great alumni, Bill Powers is among them.
I earned an MA and PhD from Texas in the years immediately following Rick Perry’s unfortunate rise to power (following Bush’s even more unfortunate rise) in the state. Perry’s short-lived Presidential bid demonstrated how little critical thinking he is engaged in (or thinking at all). His vapidity in all aspects of his job has bled over into his witch hunt for Powers. I am incredibly proud Powers is President of UT and newly elected President of AAU. Bravo for standing up for the values of a university education.
Rick Perry is trying to turn Texas into commy China — no individuality, no need for innovation. Just copy copy copy the people who came before you. Research and Teaching Hospitals will revert to health clinics. The Prestigious Business Schools will turn into secretary schools. Law Schools will just collapse. This is the world of Rick Perry - be afraid… be very afraid.
Perry is a Tyrant. Powers is a legend and a visionary. Hook ‘em Thanks Cal
Thanks Berkeley for giving me the best Law School professor I had at UT School of Law. Powers was an awesome professor and an even better president. Hook Em!
Mr. Bill Powers, I am very disappointed in Gov. Perry in the way he has stuck his nose where he has no right too. He is not your boss or any other Universities boss as well. He has enough on his plate, and I might say is doing a really bad job, and I think he should be under fire the way he has run Texas, as I was born and raised there ( Houston). I think you have done a great job in putting up with all of the distraction with the Regents and Gov. Perry, Mack Brown and a lot more as well. I have met you and have seen you several time at the Starbucks in Pemberton Heights. I live in Scottsdale AZ. I just thought I would voice my thoughts on this issue. Keep the faith and keep pushing forward, as you have a lot on the plate. Buck
I have no argument with according praise to Mr. Powers for his work to stay the pitiful short-term thinking of failed states of mind in Mr. Perry’s (hopefully soon to be past tense) Texas. I do find tiresome Adair Laras’ characterization of Mr. Powers’ transformation at UCB as particularly notable for its keeping clean from any taint from the Free Speech Movement. The FSM, and the Civil Rights Movement out of which it emerged are notable for being the sort of transformative spark UCB can provide to empower well tested critical minds to speak for nerve paths showing greening signs of life and promise. If Ronald Reagan had not, as the saying goes, “stepped up to the plate”, to provide the forces of reaction a hood-orniment for their mean spirited political bulldozer, that rallied the lower intestines to rid themselves of their more thinking children by eating them, some other equally servile and qualified showman would have been found for such an American Idol election. If anything, the rage against the FSM was a deep-seated kill Billy Budd urge to oppose any idea that some expressions of truth required long sentences with carefully dosed qualification. And, no, Twitter will NOT be the end of that. As a UCB “transformed” of the same epoch as Mr. Powers, my frequent contact with UCB students today encourages me to believe with even more conviction that Evolution was right creating imaginative herd animals like us who could be self-motivated to speak out something nuanced and well formed to calm instinct’s either-or switch to mob-panic in the direction of the waiting, patient cliffs. Mr. Powers may not have played an active role in the FSM, and nor did I, but we are both carrying out its rightful reclamations relying on the deep nutrients rooted in beneath passing surfaces, in the restorative underground.
I am a Texan who graduated from Cal in 1969. I was there when Ronald Reagan sent in the troops. I peacefully protested the war in Vietnam, but also vocally protested when some of my fellow students vilified and cheered the death of American soldiers. Texas has been very good to me, giving me a career and a family. Governor Perry has never a leading political light for me, however his attempt to bring back an affordable $10,000 education resonates with me. I am appalled that this idea is being ridiculed here. But I must also admit that having checked the resources that would be available to me if I wished to attend Berkeley under the same circumstances as I did in the sixties, I learned to my dismay that I could not afford to do so. I would have to rely on Texas for that $10,000 degree. I can’t help but wonder if Bill Powers, who appears to come from a solidly middle class background financially, wouldn’t be in the same predicament. Two final observations: first with regard to Gov. Perry’s position that university education should be for purposes of obtaining a job, I observe that I have never heard any college graduate say, “Oh, it’s okay that I haven’t found a job, I only went to college to learn.” Secondly, with regard to raising $450 million dollars, that is pretty easy in Texas when there is a winning football team. FIAT LUX
Thank you for educating this man who is such a proud force for higher education in Texas. He has done a fabulous job at the University of Texas under very troublesome times—but has persevered! We are so proud to have him as the President of the University of Texas and so proud to have him honored by you!
Thank you, President Bill Powers, for having the stamina to withstand the pressure from the well-financed ignoramuses who decry excellence in higher education. You are a hero to all of us who are committed to standing-up to the negative powers-that-be while focusing on our most important constituency: students. You justifiably have won the admiration, respect, and love of the Longhorn nation. Hook ‘em, Horns!