Lawmakers request information regarding regent, UT employee correspondence

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A joint committee composed of members of both houses announced Tuesday that they have requested information from the UT System Board of Regents necessary to investigate allegations that the board is “micromanaging” administrative decisions at UT.

Speaking at the first meeting of the relaunched Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, committee co-chair state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said he wishes to maintain a positive image of the state’s higher education institutions. To do so, it is important to understand how university systems govern their institutions and if the governance structure needs to change, Branch said.

“It would be my hope that the point here is to not create any harm to any particular system, certainly not to our state, and see if we can calmly and deliberately improve the situation at this one particular system and by application improve governance at all of our systems,” Branch said.

The information requests, addressed to Regents Chairman Gene Powell, seek a variety of communications and records between regents, System employees and University employees dating from Jan. 1, 2012, primarily communications sent “at the direction of a regent.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus relaunched the joint committee last month after regents intensely questioned UT President William Powers Jr. over a number of topics at a Feb. 13 board meeting.

The week after the board meeting, the Legislature passed three resolutions defending and honoring Powers, culminating in a ceremony on the Senate floor. During an emotional testimony, Dewhurst decried the regents for “micromanaging” Powers.

Powell released a statement that week defending the regents and saying that Dewhurst’s allegations “surely had to be the result of misinformation and were either incorrect or inaccurate.”

Last week, Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, emailed Powers instructing him to refrain from deleting emails in or accessed by the Office of the President over the course of the pending audit review of the UT Law School Foundation. Powers asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, in December 2011 to resign after it was revealed that Sager obtained $500,000 in forgivable personal loans from the UT Law School Foundation. 

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said Tuesday that regents are engaging in an effort to oust Powers that is distracting from the mission to administrate UT.

“I think there’s a witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt to try to remove one of our best presidents in the state of Texas, of our universities,” Pitts said. “And, I hope that we’ll be able to end these witch hunts and put this to bed so that the president of a tier one university can govern that university and not have interference from the board of regents.”

Committee co-chair state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said higher education institutions’ mission to achieve excellence is hindered when they are embroiled in controversy, which the committee aims to address.

“Excellence is very seldom achieved by controversy or by rumor and things like that,” Seliger said.

Last month, Seliger filed a bill that would limit regents’ authority over the individual institutions they govern. It would amend state law to say that all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards of those university systems fall under the authority of the individual institutions of that system.

Seliger, who also chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said his committee will examine the bill within the next two weeks.

“There’s no point in waiting, we want to get it moving,” Seliger said.