In higher ed debate, Pitts' recommendation letter not worth consideration

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UT System Regent Wallace Hall

On Tuesday, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, confirmed to The Texas Tribune that he wrote a letter of recommendation to the University of Texas School of Law on behalf of his son, who was later admitted to the school. The possibilities for an abuse of power in this scenario are obvious, but the answers as to why controversies such as this have dominated conversations about higher education in Texas for the past several months are not. 

Pitts issued his statement Tuesday in response to allegations made by Regent Wallace Hall about state officials influencing the admissions process at both UT-Austin and the School of Law. Hall claims he discovered these abuses of power through documents unearthed in an open records request. 

Hall, of course, is the UT System regent now infamous for being investigated by the House Select Committee for Transparency for possible impeachment.

It’s not quite clear what Hall has done to deserve the threat of impeachment — only two state officials, both of whom were elected, have been impeached in Texas history, and both were impeached for clear criminal activity. There’s no indication yet that Hall has committed a crime. 

It is well known that Hall is a real pest when it comes to plaguing the University with burdensome open records requests. Previous records requests by Hall to UT have been so expansive in scope that they’ve necessitated the hiring of additional staffers in the president’s office just to process them. 

But back to the recommendation letter: Pitts denies having exerted any undue influence on the admissions process at the School of Law, and at present (Pitts hasn’t released the letter itself), there’s no proof that his having provided a recommendation letter for his son is anything worse than misguided and tacky, despite Hall’s allegations. 

“This is nothing more than a pathetic, cowardly attempt by Mr. Hall’s allies — and possibly Mr. Hall himself — to distract from important questions about whether our flagship University System is being run appropriately,” Pitts said to the National Review of the situation. 

Incidentally, Pitts recently announced he is retiring, which he says has nothing to do with Hall’s allegations. He did, however, tell The Texas Tribune that he was tempted to run for re-election because he would “really like to stay and fight this Wallace Hall thing.” 

It’s hard to even begin unraveling the complicated politics that lead us to spend precious time making fights out of people instead of policy issues. But we are sure of one thing: At the height of the regents controversy in 2011, the conversation at least had something to do with important changes to higher education policy. Now, what’s left of the battle seems just as ridiculous as the email Gov. Rick Perry sent to several regents earlier this year that encouraged them to stand strong against “peacocks and charlatans.” 

In other words, Pitts’ influence over his son’s admission to UT's law school — or lack thereof — isn’t worth discussing on a statewide stage, especially in a state with such large higher education challenges. 

Is using your political position to exert undue influence on the admissions process wrong? Absolutely. But is a case of unconfirmed preferential treatment for a single applicant to the School of Law worth debating for two months at the highest level of university system governance? Not for a second. 

The UT System had several victories this legislative session (the establishment of the new Rio Grande Valley university and medical school, for one) as well as painful defeats (the failure of tuition revenue bonds, used to fund campus construction projects). And yet, the conversation seems stuck in the gear of petty political skirmishes. It’s far past time for us to all grow up and move on.