House Transparency Committee

UT System Regent Wallace Hall

On Tuesday of last week, Student Government passed a joint resolution with the Senate of College Councils approving a vote of “no confidence” against Regent Wallace Hall, who is currently under investigation by the House Transparency Committee for abusing his powers as a regent. The resolution proclaimed to pass no judgement on Hall’s guilt in “whatever actions and crimes are alleged against him." Ultimately, it is little more than a student government assembly-approved proclamation that students, too, are fed up with Hall’s behavior. 

But the resolution is yet another indicator that the long-simmering tensions between the Board of Regents and UT-Austin are now being kept on the burner by the actions of a single man: Hall himself. If that’s the case, we’d just as soon that Hall resign and take the drama with him, though given his past behavior, we’d expect nothing less than his stubbornly standing his ground to the detriment of the entire UT System. 

Initially, the conflict over Hall’s massive open records requests was viewed as an extension of the board and System’s alleged attempt to oust President William Powers Jr.  In response, the legislature, particularly Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, called for articles of impeachment to be brought against Hall. But as the initial exploratory investigation of the Committee has progressed, the idea of a board and System united in conflict with UT-Austin and Powers appears to be cracking.

Last month, the committee heard from Barry Burgdorf, previously a UT System vice chancellor and general counsel. Burgdorf testified to conflict between the board and the System, particularly where Chairman Powell’s hands-off style of leadership, which gave Hall free range to pursue individual investigation, was concerned. Burgdorf also spoke of Hall’s treatment of System staff, which he characterized as “like hired help.” 

More recently, the committee also heard from current UT System general counsel Dan Sharphorn, who said that he was “sympathetic” to the enormous workload Hall’s requests had caused among UT-Austin employees and that he thought that some of Hall’s requests were unreasonable.

The Board of Regents itself seems to be shifting toward a similar stance. Testimony from Francie Frederick, legal counsel to the board, seemed to mirror that of Sharphorn, purporting that a regent needed a “legitimate educational purpose” to request FERPA-protected documents, as Hall has done.

Frederick said she thought Hall, while a “principled man” who was “good at heart,” did not have such a legitimate educational purpose. She added that “distractions over the last several years are beginning to detract from the best interests of the UT System.”

The Daily Texan’s interview with Student Regent Nash Horne — while otherwise filled with so much dodging and weaving that Horne is rumored to be considering a bid for UT’s next star kick returner — seems to confirm this sentiment. In an otherwise vacuous set of answers, Horne called the impeachment hearings a “great thing,” and stated that document requests have taken valuable resources and focus away from other campuses in the UT System.

In large part, the conflict at the board level now seems to center on Hall and his apparently dwindling faction on the board, headed by, or perhaps composed exclusively of, Regents Alex Cranburg and Brenda Pejovich, who abstained from a recent vote to waive attorney-client privilege claims, a move itself designed to communicate to the committee that the rest of the board, as well as the System, was willing to cooperate.     

Some credit for this shift is probably due to a changing of the guard at the head of the board, as the newly-elected Chairman Paul Foster appears to have about-faced on his tie-breaking vote to restart the Law School Foundation investigation that kicked off this most recent mess. Foster has also outlined a plan to revamp the board’s way of conducting investigations, pointedly noting a need to look into “whether the information sought [in an investigation] is necessary and likely to be beneficial to the discharge of a board member’s duties.”

Of course, this picture of Hall as the last man standing might change if his December testimony brings with it the often-rumored, but somewhat less frequently-presented, “smoking gun” against Powers, UT-Austin, the legislature, and whatever Hall feels like “investigating” that day. And the displeasure voiced by members of the Committee at the System’s request to require subpoenas for witnesses suggests that both the System and the board may have a difficult road ahead of them convincing the committee that they don’t want to be lumped into the same basket as Hall. 

But all things considered, we’re glad to see that Hall’s now got his own basket, in the minds of not just the regents, but UT students as well. Of course, we know he won’t resign — putting a stop to this argument before it manages to monopolize the higher education conversation for three whole years would be all too kind — but it’s nice to see that he may not take the whole relationship between UT-Austin and its Board of Regents down with him. 

Nash Horne, Student Regent. Photo courtesy of UT System. 

Editor’s Note: Nash Horne is a communication studies senior from Austin who is currently serving as a non-voting member of the UT System Board of Regents, a position to which he was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. On Tuesday, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations met to hear testimony in the case of Regent Wallace Hall, who is currently under investigation by the state legislature for possible impeachment in the latest turn in the ongoing drama between UT-Austin, the UT System, the state legislature and the Board of Regents. Horne sat down with the Texan on Wednesday to talk about the situation and his time on the board. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space considerations.

Daily Texan: How would you explain to students what’s going on in the Board of Regents right now, both in regard to the House Transparency Committee’s investigation of Regent Wallace Hall and the claims that there are threats to President Powers' job from the board? 

Nash Horne: I would say that there’s three entities involved here: the board, the individual board members and [the] UT System, and each one is playing a role. Obviously, individually, Regent Wallace Hall and his inquiries into UT-Austin have been called into question, which the committee is investigating. And then there’s [the] System, which has been involved in this as well, as they are the ones that retain all the records. So all three of these people, not to mention UT-Austin, which is a piece of this as well, those four players together are all involved. The board is the board, and each individual regent is a regent. Everyone is appointed and brought forth with their personal rules of governing.


DT: What do you think are the governing philosophies of each individual regent?

NH: You know, I really couldn’t answer that, because I’ve never personally sat down and asked them what their philosophies are.


DT: You’ve never asked another regent what their philosophy on education is? 

NH: I’ve never had a personal conversation with another regent about that. The Texas Public Open Meetings Act restricts how often we can converse, because if there’s more than two of us [regents] together, we have to convene a formal meeting.


DT: So you’ve never met individually with any of the other regents?

NH: No, I have not. I’ve only been to board meetings. But I think the board is looking for a balance: How can we get the highest-quality education to students at the lowest price, and where can we cut things so we can keep the quality but take out some of the frivolous costs that there are? I think that’s what [the other regents] are aiming for [in terms of philosophy].



DT: In your opinion, is UT-Austin affordable for a sufficient variety of students?

NH: I would say that I don’t have the answer to that question. I would have to go do some research. I think as a board we’re trying to move to make it more accessible to people of different backgrounds.


DT: You said earlier that there’s a movement on the board toward cutting frivolous costs while making sure that we maintain the quality of education. What in your time as a regent or a student have you seen that you think constitutes frivolous costs? 

NH: You know, I’d rather not speak to that. There’s certain costs that I know that we talk about frequently as a board and I know the UT system looks into. I know that [Chief Financial Officer] Kevin Hegarty recently came out with a long report from an outside source that talked about [that]. My personal opinion is, if something doesn’t have a benefit for students, then why are we doing it? And I think the board comes at it that way as well.



DT: You mentioned Kevin Hegarty’s Shared Services Plan. Do you have an opinion on Shared Services? 

NH: You know, I really don’t. I don’t want to speak to that. I haven’t read it thoroughly enough.


DT: Going back to the current controversy and the players that you outlined, where does UT-Austin play into this, and is it actually under attack as much as people perceive it as being? 

NH: I think that this process [of the transparency committee impeachment proceedings] is a great thing. Because this is how our government was set up, so that we have checks and balances. With that said, I think that this whole process has taken away from the core mission of achieving excellence for students, both on UT-Austin’s side, in terms of document requests to Regent Hall, and the legislative side in terms of document requests to UT system. A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of the staff at [the] System work tirelessly for our smaller campuses, for instance, a great example is lawyers. UT-Austin has a team of lawyers. But places like UT-Permian Basin [doesn't] have a team of lawyers, so they rely on UT System lawyers. Well, those System lawyers have been drawn away to work on things, document requests and things of that nature, and have put students of those universities away for a second as they work on these document requests. So I think on both sides there’s been some time that was lost that should have been put to students.


DT: Going back to the previous question, are UT-Austin leaders justified in feeling attacked by the Board of Regents?

NH: You know, I honestly can say that is a question that President Powers' office and the staff of the president’s office can answer for you. I don’t think I have an answer for you. All I know is what the press has put out, and I wouldn’t want to formulate an opinion on that unless I was there personally.


DT: When this argument first started, it seemed like it was more of a conversation about Jeff Sandefer’s "Seven Breakthrough Solutions" for higher education. It now seems that it’s become more of a fight for personal reasons than a fight for higher education’s values. Where do you see it falling? 

NH: You know, I think the best, the most factual evidence we have of where it is, is the fact that we’re investigating Regent Hall for potential impeachment. In terms of Jeff Sandefer, I can honestly attest that I have never heard that brought up in a board meeting by any board member since my term. His name has never been brought up, the seven-I-can’t-even-tell-you-what-they’re-called have never been brought up. I’ve read it in the paper; that’s the only place I’ve ever seen his name. For my point of view, it is personal in that it’s an investigation into whether articles of impeachment are warranted for Regent Hall, but it’s also not personal in that the committee is going to tell us what state regents' roles ought to be.



DT: Your role is to represent students in the UT System to the Board of Regents. A lot of UT students on campus right now are saying that they stand with President Powers. Do you stand with President Powers?

NH: I have had an excellent education here, and President Powers was the president of the University of Texas at Austin during my time here, and so by that logic, I do [stand with Powers]. He’s the president of the university ... I attend.


DT: Should more state funding be appropriated to the UT System?


NH: I think that’s a question for the legislature, because they are the ones who decide that. I think what we can do at home is see how most effectively we can cut costs.


DT: So if a member of the state legislature is saying, should I up funding to the UT System or should I not, what do you say?

NH: Yeah, absolutely. I would never turn money away.


DT: But do you believe more money should be directed to the UT System? 

NH: Should? I don’t know if I want to answer that. But would I accept it? Yeah.


DT: What’s the ideal outcome from the House transparency committee hearings?

NH:  The ideal outcome is, first of all, that it would come to an end in a timely matter. I think the faster we can get past this and back to focusing on students, the better.

UT regent chairman defends Wallace Hall in letter to Jim Pitts

As the House Transparency Committee took a step closer to possibly impeaching UT System Regent Wallace Hall yesterday, board Chairman Gene Powell wrote a letter to Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, in defense of Hall’s actions.

In a recent opinion piece in the Austin American-Statesman, Pitts criticized Hall’s large open records requests for information from UT-Austin. Pitts also filed a resolution in the House to impeach Hall last month. In the letter obtained by Texas Monthly, Powell defends Hall’s actions.

“Clearly, Regent Hall’s activities are misunderstood and I fear may have been intentionally mischaracterized to you,” Powell said in the letter.

Powell states that Hall, as with any member of the public, has the right to view the documents he requested under the Texas Public Information Act. Hall did not seek information protected by FERPA or HIPAA. According to Powell, Hall has used the information to improve the UT System and UT-Austin.

“Regent Hall’s reviews of records have resulted in suggestions for process improvement and better governance at the U.T. System and at U.T. institutions,” Powell wrote. “He has provided observations about U.T. System and institutional inefficiencies and compliance concerns to Chancellor Cigarroa and to me.”

Powell added that Hall had not shared confidential information to individuals outside of the UT System.

The House Transparency Committee will continue to investigate Hall and plans on holding its next public hearing near the end of August. The committee has stated that it plans to use its subpoena power going forward in its investigation.

Follow Jacob Kerr on Twitter @jacobrkerr.