The chair of the House appropriations committee led the charge at the session’s first joint higher education oversight committee meeting Tuesday, calling for UT-Austin to be managed without “interference.”
Rep. Jim Pitts wants an end to what he calls the witch hunts against UT President Bill Powers by members of the UT System Board of Regents.
House appropriations chair Pitts (R-Waxahachie) was blunt in his remarks at a special higher education committee meeting Tuesday, saying he worried about “witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt” against UT president Bill Powers, and that he hoped the legislature could “put the issue to bed.”
At the first meeting of the Joint Select Oversight Committee for Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency Tuesday, Pitts and other lawmakers from both chambers made it clear that the committee’s work would be thorough, complete, and focused on UT-Austin. The committee, chaired by Sen. Kel Seliger and Rep. Dan Branch, was renewed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House speaker Joe Straus last month to take action on concerns surrounding the relationship between some UT regents and Powers. The committee was first established in 2011 and oversees all public university systems in Texas, though Tuesday’s meeting made it clear that the committee’s work would focus on the Austin flagship.
Branch (R-Dallas) opened the meeting by noting that the committee sent a letter last week to UT System chair Gene Powell requesting data on the regents’ own data requests to UT-Austin. Branch said he looks forward to receiving a response from the Board of Regents, and hoped the committee would work to “calmly, deliberately improve the situation” at UT-Austin.
Seliger (R-Amarillo) commented that the committee’s request was made to determine “who asked for what from whom,” and said that they should determine whether the regents’ data requests were used “properly.” In what the Austin American-Statesman dubbed the “latest sign of tension” between Powers and regents, the UT System directed Powers on March 8 not to delete any emails from electronic devices used by his and a number of other UT-Austin offices as part of an ongoing investigation into UT Law School and the Law School Foundation.
“We need to get this right,” said Pitts, praising Branch and Seliger for their request. Pitts asked the chairs if regents could be summoned or subpoenaed. The chairs indicated that the committee could compel testimony, but hoped that regents would volunteer their time and perspective. It was less clear whether legislators could sit in on closed-door sessions of university boards. The Board of Regents will meet Wednesday in Austin to discuss UT Law and the Law School Foundation.
A UT System spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
You can view the committee’s data request to the UT System below via the Texas Tribune. Photo of legislators on the joint committee in 2011 by Matt Portillo. Courtesy Young Texans for Excellence in Higher Education.