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University Champion

December 9, 2013
by Adair Lara
William Powers Jr.

CAA 2014 Alumnus of the Year William Powers Jr.

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.

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