Last month, University of Texas President Bill Powers asked his law school dean, Larry Sager, to resign early — months ahead of his originally planned departure at the end of the academic year. According to the Texas Tribune, Sager’s relationship with the faculty “had become so strained that he was no longer able to serve effectively.” One source of discord was faculty compensation.
The story became more interesting with news that the law school’s foundation — a private non-profit group run by alums and distinguished attorneys — had given Sager a $500,000 “forgivable loan” in 2009. It got juicier when Powers said, “I don’t remember ever being told about the loan to Dean Sager, and that’s the sort of thing I would remember.”
He said — he said
Sager counters with his “clear memory” that Powers knew about the loan, but then distances himself from the foundation’s action: “Whatever else is true about the loan, the decision was made by the president of the foundation, the executive committee of the foundation and the trustees of the foundation as a whole. I would not and could not have dictated this outcome.”
So who determines compensation at the University of Texas School of Law?
The Texas Tribune notes that one of the foundation’s top donor-trustees, Steve Susman (an outstanding attorney) explained the foundation’s laudable purpose:
“If the law school is going to remain just a state law school supported by state money, I think it’s going to drop to being a very mediocre law school. The reason this law school has always been a great law school is because it has always gone to its alumni and said, ‘We need you in it.’”
But that defense is irrelevant to the current controversy. Many colleges and universities have alumni organizations that raise money. Sometimes they solicit for particular causes or programs. No problem. But the UT foundation’s funds apparently became part of a dean’s compensation package and the university’s president claims not to know how or why.
Who’s in charge?
In a lengthy letter to the faculty (downloadable at the Texas Tribune article link), Sager explains that, after becoming dean in 2006, he tried to raise UT’s stature by luring talent from other schools while resisting raids on UT’s. Without naming the foundation, he says that “loan arrangements have come from monies that have been raised and expressly endowed for academic excellence.” He also notes that he “raised the bulk of these funds – which total more than $10 million — for exactly the purpose of recruiting and retaining faculty.”
From there, things get curioser and curioser. Sager’s letter describes university-wide austerity budgets that constrained law school salaries. Meanwhile, according to the school’s response to an Open Records Request, the $500,000 Sager received in May 2009 was by far the biggest of 22 loans made between May 15, 2006 and September 15, 2011. His letter doesn’t mention it.
President Powers says he didn’t know anything about Sager’s loan. Sager says that Powers knew and the loan was recognition for a job well-done, but his reward was a “foundation decision.”
It’s a Texas-sized mess. From the Texas Tribune:
“The day after Sager’s resignation, UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa issued a statement calling for a review of how funds flow to the Law School from the Foundation, how these decisions are made,’ in order to ‘enhance processes, procedures and controls for those transactions in the future.’ Cigarroa said the review’s findings would help establish ‘clear and transparent guidelines’ for all UT institutions and affiliated foundations.”
Before rejoicing at this hint of leadership from above, read on:
“A spokesman for the UT System said that while the chancellor has no direct authority over faculty compensation at the law school, he wants to make sure everything is being done in an appropriate fashion.” Atop the UT System sits a Board of Regents, which the governor appoints and the state senate confirms.
All of this leads to two questions: First, who decides whether things are “being done in an appropriate fashion” and, second, who’s responsible for changing things that aren’t?
After Penn State, university trustees and regents everywhere should be pondering those questions. The answers are important — and they’re in the mirror.
That the foundation’s financial support has been applied somewhat unevenly over the decades to recruit or retain faculty with national reputations has always been somewhat controversial. But reasonable minds can differ as to whether this or that professor is worth it. It is the fact that the dean seems to have been the recipent of so much largesse that so much attention has been paid to this now. Keep in mind that Powers was the dean of the law school immediately before Sagers, so he has a pretty good idea of how things should have worked.