UT-Austin President Bill Powers: How He Wants to be Remembered And Why He’s Like ‘The Hobbit’

The man who leads the flagship campus of the University of Texas is in his final week of the job.

By Laura RiceMay 27, 2015 9:53 am

University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers joined the Texas Standard in studio for the last time in that role. He’s stepping down June 2.

Powers spoke about his upcoming plans, his journey to Texas and his own quest of perseverance.

Powers says he has a year to prepare before he returns to UT-Austin’s law school as a scholar and professor.

“I’ve always loved being around university campuses and so when the opportunity came up to teach law I wanted to do that,” he says. “I love scholarship, so the combination of those is perfect for me at the university.”

When he came to Texas from Seattle, Powers says he had no idea he would spend the majority of his career here.

“When I got here in 1977 it was the day that Elvis Presley died, so I remember it very well,” he says. “It was August. It was hot. Within a couple of weeks, I knew this was a special place. I did not come down here with the thought ‘Well, that’s where I’m going to make a 35-40 year career.’”

Powers has had one of the most high-profile UT-Austin Presidencies in history. He’s held the position for nearly 10 years despite publicly butting heads with the UT System Board of Regents and some state lawmakers. He’s been outspoken on behalf of the school’s affirmative action admissions policy and steered some of UT’s adaptation to innovations in education.

Powers has some advice to impart on future presidents: “You’re an important part of the university, but there are a lot of voices,” he says. “There’s always a smarter collective in the room, listen to people.”

Though, he admits, being the president of a large state university is no easy task.

“The people around me believe in the value of a great teaching and research university and so that always sustained,” Powers says. “There were times when I’d go to bed at night and it was a tough day, but if you put it in that larger context it was worth doing.”

Powers says he dealt with the more challenging moments with a little help from J.R.R. Tolkien: “I like to think I have a trait, I go back to The Hobbit. One of the questions is why would Gandalf choose the hobbit for an important quest?” he says. “The elves had magic and the dwarfs could fight and Aragorn is swashbuckling, but the hobbits they, not quite knowing what’s around the corner, kept putting one damn foot in front of the other. My view was just keep going and if it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t, it didn’t.

So how does he want to be remembered? “I hope people would say ‘Well, the one thing when Bill was there, it was obvious he loved this university.”