William Powers Jr., a past dean of the University of Texas School of Law and former president of the University of Texas at Austin, died Sunday, leaving a legacy at the university, in the classroom and in private practice.
Powers, 72, had been of counsel at Jackson Walker in Austin since 2015, a firm he joined after stepping down as university president. He also returned to the classroom as a full-time professor at the law school.
Powers died from complications from a fall several months ago and from oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, a rare adult-onset muscle disorder, the university said in a press release on Sunday.
Jackson Walker managing partner Wade Cooper said in an interview that Powers, a friend of his for four decades, was a great help to the firm’s lawyers on briefs, and generally any legal issue that was complicated and weighty, particularly on tort issues.
Powers was a member of the American Law Institute and a co-reporter on the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Liability and the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical Harm.
“We all know him as a dean, a university president, a teacher, and besides him being an intellectual force, he was a good guy,” said Cooper, who was a torts student of Powers at UT law school.
Powers was the 28th president of the University of Texas at Austin, serving from 2006 to 2015. He was dean of the law school for six years before that. He was a member of the law school faculty for 40 years, including his tenure as dean.
He taught tort courses and a freshman philosophy seminar, UT said in the release.
Cale McDowell, a Jackson Walker partner in Austin who was instrumental in inviting Powers to join the firm, was an undergraduate at UT when he met Powers. McDowell, then an undergraduate student leader at UT, worked closely with Powers as part of a task force on curriculum reform. McDowell said at the firm Powers had a “deep intellect and an interest in mentoring younger lawyers.”
Alfred Meyerson, a Jackson Walker partner in Houston, said in an interview that Powers was not only a legal scholar who bolstered the firm’s litigation and appellate practices, but a mentor who spent time training younger lawyers and helping them develop their careers.
“He was really big in teaching leadership. He was more than just the brilliant torts professor,” said Meyerson, who attended UT as an undergrad and law student.
UT President Gregory Fenves said in the university’s press release that Powers was an “eloquent and fierce champion for UT students, faculty and staff. Never was this more evident than in the early and mid-2010s, when Bill put every ounce of himself into defending the soul of our university.”
Fenves added that Powers embodied the UT motto of “What starts here changes the world.”
UT School of Law dean Ward Farnsworth said in an interview that Powers was an “enormously popular” classroom teacher as well as a scholar.
“Bill’s record as a leader of the university is well-known to all, but of course his career started and ended as a law professor and in that capacity he was a star,” Farnsworth said.
He said Powers was teaching a torts class last fall, but could not finish it after he was injured.
Charles Babcock, a Jackson Walker partner in Houston and Dallas, said in an interview that Powers helped him in 2015 successfully defend Judge Michelle Slaughter, who was found not guilty of violating ethics rules and the Texas Constitution by posting on Facebook about criminal cases that were pending in her court. Slaughter, a former district court judge in Galveston, is now on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Trying that case with Powers was a great professional experience, he said.
“His insight was just stunning, from political things, to points of law, to everything in between,” Babcock said. He described Powers as a “giant of the legal profession, not just in Texas but nationally.”
“He loved the teaching part but he enjoyed the practice part, too. He was very enthusiastic,” Babcock said.
Powers, who argued more than 50 appeals to the Texas Supreme Court over his career, had of counsel relationships with other law firms before Jackson Walker while a law professor.
While law school dean, Powers led a special investigative committee established by the Enron Corp. board of directors that released a report in 2002, which became known as the Powers report, that criticized the Houston company’s executives, board, auditors and lawyers for their handling of transactions with certain affiliated partnerships.
Meyerson said Powers was extraordinarily well-versed.
“There is nobody you’d rather have dinner with or a conversation with because he could talk about so many subjects. It’s remarkable. You could talk to him about the Bible, obviously torts or any subject in the law, Greek mythology, great books, sports,” Meyerson said.
Powers resigned as university president in 2015, and his tenure was not without controversy. The previous year, investigators were scrutinizing UT Austin’s admissions policies and a report by Kroll Associates in 2015 said that during the six years before and until 2012, two UT law deans received phone calls from an aide to Powers about admitting law school candidates.
In an interview with Texas Lawyer at the time he joined Jackson Walker, Powers said the admissions situation influenced his resignation, but he said disagreements over the direction of the university had been going on for some time and he said he was proud of his accomplishments as president of UT Austin.
He noted in that interview that during his tenure, the university reformed the undergraduate curriculum, completed a $3.1 billion capital campaign, created a medical school, made progress in diversifying the university and completed some building construction.
Meyerson also pointed to the School of Undergraduate Studies, a program for students who are undecided about their major, which was created under Powers’ leadership.
Powers graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and from Harvard University Law School.