Obituaries

William Powers, university president who wrote report on wrongdoing at Enron, dies at 72

Mr. Powers testified before a Senate committee about the scandal at Enron, where he was a director.
Ron Edmonds/Associated Press/File 2002
Mr. Powers testified before a Senate committee about the scandal at Enron, where he was a director.

NEW YORK — William C. Powers Jr., a long-serving president of the University of Texas who earlier produced a scathing report in 2002 on the wrongdoing that led to the collapse of the Enron Corp., died Sunday in Austin, Texas. He was 72.

His family said the cause was complications of a fall and of oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, a rare, adult-onset muscle disorder.

Mr. Powers was president of the University of Texas at Austin, the flagship campus of the state’s sprawling university system, from 2006 to 2015.

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But it was while he was a top legal scholar and dean of the University of Texas law school that he came to national prominence. In 2001, he joined Enron’s board and agreed to lead a committee to investigate the company’s financial dealings. Its findings led to one of the nation’s largest corporate scandals and the collapse of Enron, a Houston-based energy company that had started to implode in 2000.

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His blistering 217-page report found a culture of deception, self-dealing and self-enrichment at Enron. Controls, it said, had failed at almost every level, and the losers were the company’s shareholders, to the tune of more than $60 billion.

Some critics had feared Mr. Powers would be soft on Enron because the company had donated $3.5 million to the University of Texas, including $276,000 to the law school. But those concerns evaporated once the report came out and Mr. Powers testified before Congress, saying that what he found was “absolutely appalling.”

The Powers Report said Enron executives had intentionally manipulated the company’s profits, inflating them by almost $1 billion.

The report, which served as a road map for more than a dozen congressional and executive branch investigations, placed the blame squarely on Kenneth L. Lay, Enron’s longtime chairman and chief executive, and his protégé, Jeffrey K. Skilling, who was president and the next chief executive.

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Skilling, who was convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges in 2006, was released from federal custody last month after serving 12 years of a 24-year sentence; Lay faced the possibility of the rest of his life in prison but died of coronary artery disease at 64 before he was sentenced.

After issuing his report, Mr. Powers returned to the law school, where he was an expert on product-liability law. He served as dean until 2005, when he was named president of the university.

During his tenure as president, Mr. Powers spent much of his time clashing with Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, over the direction of the university and its funding. Still, he completed an eight-year fund-raising campaign that netted $3.1 billion and helped establish the university’s Dell Medical School.

In addition, he championed affirmative-action programs, carrying the fight to the Supreme Court. In Fisher v. University of Texas, a landmark 2016 ruling, the court said the university could consider race as one of several factors in undergraduate admissions.

William Charles Powers Jr. was born on May 30, 1946, in Los Angeles. His father was an educator and his mother, Mildred Rose (Fluke) Powers, a homemaker.

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He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967, and spent three years in the Navy, stationed in Bahrain.

He then attended Harvard Law School, where he was managing editor of Harvard Law Review. He received his degree in 1973.

Mr. Powers taught at the law schools of Southern Methodist University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington before moving to the University of Texas at Austin to teach in 1977.

He married Karen Devendorf in 1967; they divorced in 1981. In 1983, he married Kim Heilbrun, who survives him, as do his sons, Matt and Reid; his daughters, Kate, Allison, and Annie Powers; six grandchildren; and his sister, Susan Powers. Another sister, Patricia Bemis, died in 2015.

As president of the university, Mr. Powers faced repeated challenges from Perry, who wanted the university to be run more like a business. The governor tried to remove professors whom he considered elitists, defund expensive research labs, and measure the productivity of faculty members on spreadsheets so they could be paid according to the revenue they brought in.

Mr. Powers rejected this approach, defending research investments and the broader goals of a liberal arts education.

“Bill put every ounce of himself into defending the soul of our university,” Gregory L. Fenves, Mr. Powers’s successor as president, said in a statement. “He bravely stood up for what was right.”

His clash with the governor put Mr. Powers at the center of a national debate over the value and mission of research universities at a time when higher education was becoming more and more costly. College presidents across the country sided with Mr. Powers and elected him chairman of the Association of American Universities in 2013.

Nevertheless, Mr. Powers agreed to resign under pressure. But, with the support of much of the faculty, students, and donors, he was able to delay his departure until June 2015.

The previous year, his adversaries had backed an investigation into reports that Mr. Powers had pressed for dozens of students who were well-connected but who had poor grades to be admitted to the university over the objections of the admissions staff.

The investigation found in early 2015 that he had admitted 73 such students over six years. He acknowledged doing so, but defended their admission, saying that the students’ families knew wealthy donors and lawmakers who controlled state funding for the university and that admitting them would benefit the university in the long run.

The investigators concluded that final admissions decisions were the prerogative of the president, no laws had been broken, and no quid pro quos had been offered or accepted. No disciplinary action was taken against Mr. Powers.

Despite his tumultuous tenure, Mr. Powers ended up as the second-longest serving president in the university’s history.