AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The future of University of Texas President Bill Powers dominated Monday's confirmation hearing for three members of the system's Board of Regents, with one lawmaker saying he believes the board is "on a mission" to oust the popular leader of the Austin campus.
The Senate is considering Gov. Rick Perry's appointments of new University of Texas System regents Ernest Aliseda of McAllen and businessman Jeff Hildebrand of Houston, and the reappointment of board vice chairman Paul Foster of El Paso.
All three said that if confirmed, they had no intention of pushing for Powers' ouster.
The Senate Nominations Committee hearing came after months of public bickering between lawmakers and current regents critical of Powers. The Legislature has thrown strong support behind Powers, but any new regents are considered key to whether Powers can keep the job he's held since 2006. Powers has clashed with regents and Perry on various issues — including tuition costs and the roles of teaching and research at the university — for more than two years.
The panel was expected to vote on the nominations on Tuesday to send them to the full Senate for consideration.
Foster, who is up for a new six-year term, faced the toughest line of questioning in a hearing that lasted nearly four hours over two sessions. Foster said he considers Powers "difficult" to work with, but when pressed if he would give Powers a vote of confidence, Foster gave a hesitant "yes."
The dispute pitting the Legislature vs. the regents erupted into a public spat in February when the Senate and House passed resolutions supporting Powers, accusing regents of engaging in a "witch hunt" and "character assassination." The two sides also engaged in a legal fight over the release of records the Legislature wanted from the board.
Much of that outrage seemed to have quieted ahead of Monday's hearing. A special joint committee on higher education convened to look into the dispute between Powers and the regents, but it only met once and didn't hear testimony.
Lawmakers have only one week left to weigh in on Perry's nominations before the session adjourns on Memorial Day.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, called the dispute between lawmakers and the board a "disgraceful mess."
Foster, who acknowledged there has been discussion among regents that Powers' "tenure has gone long enough" insisted there was no formal effort to dump the president.
"I certainly agree that 'all hell would break loose,'" Foster said, "There is no effort, there is no plan, there is no divine scheme to fire Bill Powers."
All three nominees pledged that if confirmed, they would not try to fire a campus president without first getting a recommendation from the system chancellor. That provision is a key part of a bill limiting regent powers that has been passed by the Legislature and is awaiting action from Gov. Rick Perry.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, called that a hollow promise, noting that Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa works for the regents and suggested his job security could be at stake.
"I think you are on a mission," to fire Powers, Whitmire said. "I hope I am wrong."
Hildebrand, the businessman who has donated at least $300,000 to Perry political campaigns, said he wasn't directed to fire Powers should he join the board.
"I would not have accepted the nomination if someone had asked me to vote in a particular fashion," Hildebrand said.
Foster said he believes the attention on Powers has been a distraction from other important work the regents need to do.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, a key supporter of Powers, said she feared the influence of "rogue regents" on the board and asked nominees how they would calm the situation. All of them said they would try to meet with Powers, alumni groups and other regents to try to find a solution.
Media reports about the regents' dispute with lawmakers and perceived attempts to remove Powers are "tarnishing the brand," of the University of Texas System, Hildebrand said.
"It's time to move on from this," Hildebrand said. "It's a $13 billion institution and we're spending all our time talking about Bill Powers."