Oversight Committee Mulls Conflict of Interest

After two years of scandal, officials agree on one thing: more stakeholders—including alumni—need more information about how higher education decisions get made.

Scandals, rumors, secrets, and conflicts defined a committee hearing that even Capitol insiders may have skipped to get an early jump on the holidays. In a far-reaching and sometimes philosophical hearing, the Texas Legislature’s Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency bemoaned a number of recent controversies in its final meeting before the 2013 Legislature.

Officials may not agree on much, but they did gel around the notion that people with a stake in higher education—from students and taxpayers to professors and legislators—should have as much information as possible about how decisions that affect higher ed get made. The topic, after all, was transparency.

Legislators questioned regents, administrators  and other officials on open meetings, students metrics, faculty roles, and openness in research funding. The joint committee is co-chaired by Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) and Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member.

The role of university boards has been under intense scrutiny, including questions of regents individual influence on the academic mission of institutions. In May 2011, UT System regent Alex Cranberg stirred controversy by requesting data on professor productivity, a move seen by some as the kind of inappropriate regental interference that cost University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan her job this summer before her reinstatement 17 days later.

A similar move was whispered about in May, when Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka published a rumor that UT-Austin president Bill Powers’ job was in jeopardy. Powers kept his job, but the firestorm of criticism and support encapsulated an ongoing struggle to define efficiency, accountability, and the role of governor-appointed regents in university affairs.

Sen. Zaffirini pointedly asked panelists what lessons could be drawn from the Sullivan and Powers affairs. Texas higher education commissioner Raymund Paredes called the Powers incident a “fiasco all the way around,” and said university governing boards have a responsibility to consult with and inform stakeholders, including top government officials.

Legislators are also keen to avoid conflicts of interest in higher education business dealings and research awards. Earlier this month, the San Antonio Express-News reported concerns over UT System chair Gene Powell’s relationship to a company under consideration to partner with UT’s Health Science Center in San Antonio.

“I would submit it wasn’t a conflict of interest at all,” UT System vice chancellor and general counsel Barry Burgdorf responded. “In fact, I know it wasn’t, but the paper [the San Antonio Express-News] tried to make it out to be.”

Another academic conflict of interest came to an at least temporary close this week, when an independent review found serious flaws in the design and release of a controversial study by UT professor Charles Groat. Groat announced his retirement in November, and UT Energy Institute head Raymond Orbach has stepped down.

The concerns around transparency didn’t stop at university campuses. Sen. Zaffirini also addressed the Tuition Revenue Bonds (TRBs) used to fund university capital building projects. The senator noted the failure of TRB bills to make it out of committee in both the 2009 and 2011 Legislatures. Paredes said the current criteria [PDF] for evaluating TRBs is strong—at least on the Coordinating Board’s end.

“I think the process is transparent until it arrives in legislative offices,” Paredes said.

“I guess we should just leave that one alone,” Rep. Branch quipped in response.

The officials seemed to agree that it is crucial to keep as many stakeholders as possible informed. Rep. Branch pointed to alumni as a crucial constituency.

“I know that there’s all kinds of alumni involvement in many of the UT institutions, particularly Austin,” Branch noted, “so I would hope that the Coordinating Board and all groups would look for ways to find a role for some parents—a representative sample of parents—and alums while these discussions are being made.”

“I think the lesson learned going forward,” said Sen. Zaffirini, “is that if everyone is at the table, we’re more likely to succeed.”

The Texas State Capitol. Photo courtesy wallyg via Flickr Creative Commons.


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