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Texas Senate May Wade Into UT Dispute

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Senate announced Tuesday that it will hold hearings into the behavior of the University of Texas’ regents and whether they are meddling too much into President Bill Powers’ private life and management of the school.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called Tuesday for the hearings. A day earlier, the Legislature delivered a strong message of support for Powers, and Dewhurst accused some of the nine members of the University of Texas System regents of waging “character assassination” of Powers and his family.

Dewhurst has said anonymous letters attacking Powers and his wife have been circulated among the regents but has provided no other details.

Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican and chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said he didn’t know when the hearings would start. Seliger said regents could be called to testify, and the Senate could subpoena the documents Dewhurst mentioned.

“President Powers appreciates all the support he’s received this week from the lieutenant governor and other lawmakers,” Powers spokesman Gary Susswein said. “The president will cooperate fully with the Legislature as it examines issues related to UT and higher education.”

The regents did not immediately comment Tuesday.

On Monday, the Senate and House passed resolutions praising Powers and his leadership. Seliger questioned whether the regents’ behavior threatens the credibility of the entire nine-campus system.

Seliger said the regents should have the authority to fire school presidents but added, “If we are getting into a situation where they are also managing [campuses], it’s going to be a dysfunctional system. The state of Texas and so many people have an awful lot invested in the University of Texas System.”

Powers has been president of the 50,000-student flagship campus in Austin since 2006 and has been fighting off political criticism of his leadership for more than two years. He is believed to have a slim majority of support among the regents.

Powers has clashed with some regents over tuition, the roles of research and teaching at universities, the productivity of professors and a foundation that supplements law school salaries.

And the university has recently been embroiled in a fight with former women’s track coach Bev Kearney, who resigned while in the process of being fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a student-athlete a decade ago. The university also recently disclosed that a current assistant football coach was reprimanded but not fired in 2009 for inappropriate contact with a student trainer on a trip to a bowl game.

Kearney has questioned whether her firing was an act of discrimination because she is African-American and a lesbian, and her attorney has threatened a lawsuit.

Dewhurst and Seliger said the Powers’ marriage has now come under attack from some regents. Powers met his wife while she was attending the university’s law school, and he was a professor. They married after she graduated in 1981 and have three children.

“There were clearly some allegations made of letters impugning the reputation of the wife of the president. What is that about when it comes to the governance [of the university]?” Seliger said.

Several senators said Tuesday they had not seen the anonymous letters Dewhurst mentioned but agreed lawmakers should take a closer look at the regents’ activities.

“I do think there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes in an effort to make life miserable for President Powers. I think he’s doing a great job,” said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. “We ought to be building our institutions up, not tearing them down.”

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