Excellence and Transparency

Lawmakers request information regarding regent, UT employee correspondence

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.

Prominent members of the Texas Legislature filed measures this week to protect the University of Texas’ autonomy from the UT System Board of Regents. The lawmakers’ actions follow a public outpouring of support in the form of speeches and resolutions in favor of UT President William Powers Jr. on Monday.

Specifically, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst reinstituted a joint committee to determine the proper role of governance structures at Texas public universities — including the Board of Regents’ relationship with UT System universities. Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed SB 15, a bill which would promote transparency and prevent the regents from interfering in University matters not specifically delegated to them.

As set forth by Dewhurst, the revival of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency will be an explicit effort to monitor the behavior of the board of regents. The committee, originally formed in 2011 following similar controversy over what the regents’ appropriate role should be, has previously taken as its charge to examine “measures to identify and encourage those governing boards and administrators to follow best practices in policy development and implementation,” according to the proclamation that established the committee. In other words, the committee’s renewal sends an unmistakable message about the importance of oversight of the regents. Significantly, the committee could wield real power in achieving that goal this time around, thanks to Seliger’s proposed SB 15.

The bill, which was co-authored by nine other senators, would prohibit appointed regents from “voting on any budgetary or personnel matters related to system administration or institutions of higher education,” without first being confirmed by the Texas Senate and undergoing “training in the areas of budgeting, policy development, ethics and governance.” It also provides that “all duties not specifically prescribed by law to governing boards or system administration are the responsibilities of institutions of higher education.” This last clause, Seliger said in a statement, “is intended to protect institutional autonomy in the same way that we all expect the 10th Amendment to protect state sovereignty from government overreach.”

It’s only sensible that the regents should undergo ethics training and legislative review — after all, University faculty must submit to similar training and oversight regarding conflicts of interest. Seliger’s proposals are simply an extension of that high ethical standard to those with most decision-making power. The regents should not have unlimited authority over everything that happens at the University of Texas, certainly, but neither should the Legislature or the University administration. All three entities should cooperate under a system of checks and balances to improve higher education in the state of Texas. SB 15 and the Joint Oversight Committee are commendable steps in that direction.

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst announces joint committee to examine Board of Regents

After allegations arose earlier this week that the UT System Board of Regents is micromanaging President William Powers Jr., Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced Wednesday that he and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus will relaunch a joint committee composed of higher education leaders from both houses to examine regents' proper governance role in an institution.

Dewhurst said he believes the job of regents is to advise institutions on policy matters and provide consent to those institutions to move forward with policy, not to manage individual institutions.

"I don't pretend to be an authority on the governance of higher education, but that's the way that our universities, over decades and decades, have been run very effectively," Dewhurst said.

Speaking to reporters on the Senate floor, Dewhurst said he signed a proclamation that will create the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, which will be co-chaired by state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who chair the higher education committees in their respective houses. The proclamation still requires Straus' signature.

The committee will have subpoena power, or the ability to summon witnesses to testify and to procure evidence related to the subject of investigation. Dewhurst said complaints he has received have revolved around three regents, not the majority of the board or board chairman Gene Powell.

During the Feb. 13 regents meeting, three regents – Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall and Brenda Pejovich, each appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 – intensely questioned Powers on a number of topics.

In response, the Legislature passed three resolutions Monday honoring Powers. During a ceremony on the Senate floor, Dewhurst offered an emotional defense of Powers. Multiple senators also defended Powers’ record and decried his detractors.

On Wednesday, Dewhurst did not directly comment on whether the committee was being formed prior to Monday's events.

The Feb. 13 meeting was not the first time Powers and the regents found themselves opposing one another. Last year, the regents rejected Powers’ request for a 2.6 percent in-state undergraduate tuition increase and chose to freeze tuition. Afterward, Powers sent an email to faculty, staff and students expressing disappointment with the regents’ decision.

Shortly after, rumors originating from a blog post by Paul Burka, senior executive editor for Texas Monthly, stated that Powell directed UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to fire Powers. Cigarroa denied the allegations.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo and former chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said the committee will allow members of both houses to share differing perspectives on how regents should govern university systems.

Zaffirini said she did not know if the committee was being formed prior to complaints surrounding the regents.

"You would have to ask the lieutenant governor," Zaffirini said.