University of Texas Law School

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.

The trailer for Homo Erectus, a 2007 movie written, directed by and starring Adam Rifkin, lasts two and a half painful minutes and features a montage of women being clubbed over the head, one naked butt and a few cuts of men kissing, the last an unsophisticated reference to the first word in the film’s title.

Roderick Hart, dean of the College of Communications, confirms what the trailer implies: “It was a terrible film.”

But UT and UT students helped make the movie. Homo Erectus was produced by Burnt Orange Productions, LLC, a company owned by the UT Communication Foundation. The University cannot legally own a for-profit company, but the foundation successfully circumvents that rule because the Communication Foundation is an external nonprofit. Its stated mission is to support the University.

In reality, the Communication Foundation was established  in 2003 to pay for Homo Erectus and other films with both public and private money. Those films, in their defense, provided a learning experience for UT students interested in filmmaking, a handful of whom worked behind the scenes and on the set. Radio, Television and Film students worked on four films produced by Burnt Orange Productions between 2003 and 2007.

The films were meant as an educational exercise, with the possibility that they would additionally generate revenue. Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication when the Communication Foundation was established, explained in an interview: “We were hoping to set up a film production program that our students would work on that would actually produce films. We hoped it would develop into a source of income to keep production going with in the department. It was a way of connecting our students and getting them money for productions and getting them shown in theaters.”

In the past year, other external foundations collecting private money to support this public University have come under close scrutiny as part of a larger power struggle for control and oversight between the UT System Board of Regents and the UT administration.

In 2011, Lawrence Sager, former dean of the University of Texas Law School, resigned under pressure after he received a $500,000 forgivable loan using funds from the School of Law Foundation, a fact revealed by an open records request filed by disgruntled faculty members. Because the School of Law Foundation and the Communication Foundation are external to the University, the money they contribute is subject to different rules than public funds that come from other sources: the Texas Legislature (13 percent of the 2012 UT-Austin budget), the Permanent University Fund (the UT-System endowment) and federal funding from the U.S. Government.

In a state rabid about access to public information and transparency of government, the foundations operate in the shadows. The rules governing the money’s distribution are inconsistent and vague. The University wants to keep the regents at bay, but at a public institution, even private funds must be dispersed in a manner that is transparent and clear. This lack of transparency was truly the most objectionable characteristic of the Communication Foundation, the tastefulness of clubbing women aside.

The University was unable to provide records of Burnt Orange Productions’ expenditures, but the foundation “registered consistent negative balance of more than $760,000 on its tax forms since filmmaking ended in 2007,” according to an April 29 article in The Daily Texan. It continues, “By writing off its losses, the foundation registered a positive balance on its 2012 tax return of $22,000, but how those funds will be spent and whether or not the organization has any potential as a vehicle for funding at the University of Texas remains to be seen.” 

Should Homo Erectus and a filmmaking company described as a “sinkhole” for private and public money be a part of the mission of higher education? Many students involved directly in the project say “yes,” because the foundation provided them with valuable learning experience. One student told the Texan, “The main long-term benefit I received was working with high quality material.”

But any money flowing touched by foundations linked to the University — even money aimed ostensibly at enhancing the student experience — should be subject to all the transparency requirements of a public university in Texas. The intentionally opaque structures of many external foundations, which blur the lines between public responsibility and private interest, demand attention. 

Correction: Because of a copy editing error, an earlier verision of this article incorrectly said Lawrence Sager, former dean of the University of Texas Law School, gave himself $500,000 forgivable loan using funds from the School of Law Foundation. Sager did not give himself, but received the forgivable loan.