Posted: Feb 21, 2013 2:50 PM
Updated: Feb 21, 2013 2:50 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Gov. Rick Perry appointed two new members of the University of Texas System Board of Regents and reappointed a third on Thursday, an apparent response to state lawmakers investigating the board over allegations of mistreatment of embattled University of Texas President Bill Powers.
Powers is believed to be fighting for his job as leader of the 52,000-student flagship Austin campus and Perry's new appointments will raise more questions about Powers' future. It also sets up a potential showdown between the governor and the Legislature over who controls higher education in Texas.
House and Senate lawmakers on Wednesday set up a joint panel to investigate recent actions by the Texas regents and one key lawmaker filed a bill to limit regents' role in directly managing campuses.
Powers has clashed with the regents for more than two years over tuition, the roles of research and teaching at universities, and other issues. He was believed to have held only a slim majority of support among the nine members, all Perry appointees.
State lawmakers this week pushed back with a strong showing of public support for Powers and his leadership and the creation of the special committee to investigate the regents. In an emotional display Monday on the Senate floor, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst angrily denounced what he called the "character assassination" of Powers and his family by some regents.
Dewhurst said an anonymous letter attacking Powers and his wife has circulated among the regents, but has provided no other details or made the letters public. Dewhurst has also said the allegations did not involve the three regents whose terms expired this month.
Perry appointed as new regents Houston oilman and major Perry campaign donor Jeff Hildebrand, and Ernest Aliseda, a McAllen attorney and former state district judge, to six year terms. Hildebrand is a University of Texas graduate. Aliseda is a graduate of Perry's alma mater, Texas A&M University.
Hildebrand donated $330,000 to Perry political campaigns in 2010 when Perry won his third full term as governor, according to state records.
Perry also reappointed regents Vice Chairman Paul Foster of El Paso to a new six-year term. All of the appointments are subject to Senate confirmation.
Perry's appointment announcement did not mention the probe by the Joint Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency. Republican Sen. Kel Seliger, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, has said the special panel will likely call regents to testify and could subpoena records.
Seliger, who this week pointed at Perry's office as behind the hostile treatment of Powers, welcomed the timing of Perry's appointments.
"The timing is excellent, he's doing it when there is plenty of time for confirmation hearings and a full examination and inquiry by the Senate," Seliger said.
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 disclosed that current assistant football coach Major Applewhite 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.
In the shadow of those embarrassing cases and Powers' ongoing battle with the board, Dewhurst and Seliger say Powers' marriage has now come under attack from some regents. Powers met his wife, Kim Heilbrun, 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.
Seliger said he's concerned the Texas regents are micromanaging their campuses. He introduced a bill Wednesday that would prevent regents from voting on budget or personnel matters until they have been confirmed by the Senate.
On the Internet:
Senate Bill 15: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=SB15