Former UT President Bill Powers dies at 72 years old

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Former UT President Bill Powers, 72, died Sunday morning, according to a letter to the UT community from current president Gregory Fenves.  

UT Austin darkened its tower in honor of Powers’ life on Sunday night. 

A school spokesperson said Powers passed away due to complications he sustained from a fall several months earlier and oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, a rare adult-onset muscle disorder.

Powers worked for the university for four decades, starting on the law school faculty in 1977, eventually serving as dean. He then served as university president at UT from 2006 to 2015, the second-longest term served by any UT president.  

A release from the university calls Powers “most enduring legacy,” continued efforts to stand up to criticism from state leaders who called for changing UT’s structure to make it operate more like a business. Powers opposed these changes and advocated to preserve UT’s focus on research.  

“It’s universally recognized as his shining moment,” said Doug Demptster, Dean of UT’s College of Fine Arts. 

“[Powers] got called to a kind of greatness when the constitutional premise of UT was challenged by a number of outside and internal interests who thought the university could and should convert to a  supercharged community college and not being too overly concerned about research or pushing the boundaries of knowledge,” Dempster said. 

 He recalled that some proposals at the time called for faculty performance to be measured by how much tuition revenue was generated by teaching. Dempster feared that these proposed changes would push all of UT’s students to become engineering and business majors. 

Instead, Powers focused his energy on improving graduation rates for UT’s existing students, setting a goal in 2011 to bring UT’s four-year graduation rate from 50% up to 70 percent by 2017. Though the university missed this goal in 2017, UT is making strides in that direction with a 65.7% graduation rate in 2017 and a 69.8% graduation rate in 2018. 

During his tenure Powers oversaw great change to the university, launching the Dell Medical School and transforming the school’s undergraduate curriculum.

“We are deeply saddened at the passing of UT President Bill Powers, and forever grateful for his visionary leadership in the creation of Dell Med,” said Clay Johnston, Dean of UT’s Dell Medical School. “By his own example, Bill showed me what it is to be a good Texan.”

Powers also focused on improving diversity at UT, establishing a vice presidency position at the university to oversee diversity and community engagement. 

“The Board of Regents and the entire University of Texas System mourn the loss of Bill Powers, one of the great champions of higher education in Texas and American history,” said a joint statement from UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken and  Kevin P. Etlife, Chairman of the UT System’s Board of Regents.

“For 40 years on these Forty Acres, Bill Powers embodied the UT motto, ‘What starts here changes the world,’ said President Greg Fenves in his letter to the community. “He lived those words. But even more importantly, he made sure legions of other Longhorns did too.”

Powers was a key contributor in the creation of the Longhorn Network which debuted in 2011.

During his time as law school dean, Powers rose to national prominence as the author of the “Powers Report,” which in 2002 exposed wrongdoings at Enron and led to congressional investigations and criminal prosecutions relating to the Houston-based energy company.

A public memorial service for Powers will be held at a later date.

Tributes to Powers’ life 

From lawmakers, to faculty, to students, many people shared their thoughts Sunday on Powers and his legacy.

“He loved this place, he would say regularly that being president of UT was the honor of his life and he really meant that,” said Andrew Clark, who graduated from UT in 2014. Clark, who served in student government, recalls Powers as being accessible and willing to listen to student ideas. 

UT Law school graduate Rudy Metayer remembers meeting Powers as an undergraduate at UT, then getting to know Powers better as he later attended law school at UT as well. 

Metayer, whose parents were Haitian immigrants, said he knew nothing about becoming a lawyer. But in Powers, he found a mentor. 

“Bill taught me early on, it’s not just enough to be a lawyer,” Metayer explained, noting that Powers gave him a desire to give back that has carried him throughout his career. 

“If not for Bill Powers, I would not be a lawyer here today, if not for Bill Powers, I would not serve as one of the youngest members of the State Bar of Texas, if not for Bill Powers I would not currently be a Council Member in this city of Pflugerville,” Metayer said. 

Metayer also commended Powers’ efforts to improve racial, intellectual and socioeconomic diversity on campus. He remembered how Powers helped him to extend a scholarship opportunity for first-generation college students in Texas to attend law school. 

“Bill understood at a time when it wasn’t ok to say this — you think about how it was in the early 2000’s –, to say listen, having a cellist in class was just as important as having someone with the highest grades in math,” Metayer noted. 

Guy Wellborn, the Liedtke Professor of Law emeritus at UT, met Powers when the two began at Harvard Law School back in 1970. 

 Wellborn recalled with delight helping Powers to move from his professorship at the University of Washington to the University of Texas Law School in 1977. 

“And we ended up in offices next door to each other, which was just a wonderful, it was a dream come true for me,” Wellborn said. “And Bill was so good as a professor in every way, they made him dean [of the law school] ” 

Wellborn recalled how important it was to Powers to push for keeping the Big 12 as a power conference during a realignment period, “for teams and students not to have to travel to the other side of the country for their sports.”

“And they were able to keep it together!” Wellborn said. 

Wellborn said that while the two didn’t have as much time to catch up when Powers was president, they reconnected in his later years as Powers picked up teaching from time to time. 

“I am very grateful and very proud to have been a friend of such a great man,” Wellborn said. “I’m gonna miss, him, I do miss him.”

Doug Dempster, dean of UT’s College of Fine Arts, remembers Powers for his love of teaching.

“That’s my recollection of Bill honestly when I sat alone with him in his office,” Dempster said. “He was a teacher and an intellectual to the very end, I think.”

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