Senate Weighs Bill To Alter Regent Duties

The state Senate is considering a bill to refine the relationship between public universities and their governing boards. Wednesday, the higher education committee heard testimony on whether UT-Austin was being “micromanaged” by its board of regents.

A bill that would more specifically define and in some ways alter the role of public university boards will be considered in the Texas Senate higher education committee next week. Committee chair Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) said the bill, which was discussed in committee Wednesday morning, will be reconsidered after input from legislators and constituents, including many Texas Exes.

Seliger filed Senate Bill 15 last month, in response to concerns that regents were focusing undo attention on UT-Austin and its president, Bill Powers. The bill would, among other things, require regents to undergo ethics training before they can vote on any budgetary or personnel matter, and it directs regents to communicate to System employees and campus administrators through the chancellor.

Testifying in favor of the bill, which would also limit boards’ to the duties to those specifically outlined by statute, UT-Austin graduate student body president Michael Redding said that the ongoing tension reported between UT regents and Powers is hurting the University.

“The morale on our campus is very low right now,” said Redding, who described a feeling among faculty and graduate students of being “besieged” by the board. “Who has to use the word besieged when talking about a board? It’s absurd.”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member, asked Redding directly what would happen among graduate students if Powers were fired.

Redding said he’d already seen a negative impact, and said recruiting a qualified graduate school dean would be difficult.

“I foresee, personally, a mass exodus if that sort of thing happened,” said Redding.

Redding was joined by Senate of College Councils president Michael Morton and Texas Exes executive director Leslie Cedar. Both spoke in favor of the bill and responded to questions raised by committee members regarding their relationship to the University and what actions they believe prompted the bill’s consideration.

“Our university, our students, our faculty, and our administration are tired,” said Morton. “Recent actions by the Board of Regents are not in the best interests of the institution and are hindering UT’s ability to reach even greater heights.”

Asked by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) what actions he considered micromanaging, Morton mentioned an episode in 2011 in which his predecessor, Carisa Nietsche, was asked by two regents and the regents’ general counsel to take down a Senate website that chronicled the ongoing “controversy.” Morton did not name the regents involved.

Cedar praised the legislators who authored the bill, and expressed her hope that the current legislature would ease tensions and “restore broken relationships throughout the University of Texas System.”

“No matter what your philosophy on higher education may be,” Cedar said, “the need for transparency and appropriate management of our institutions of higher learning is difficult to refute.”

Sens. Duncan and Birdwell briefly questioned Cedar on the relationship between the Texas Exes and the UT System. As an independent nonprofit, the Ex-Students’ Association is not governed by the board, but may interact with them, Cedar clarified. She noted that a regent, who she did not name, had expressed “displeasure” with the Association’s conduct throughout the ongoing regents controversy.

The hearing comes a day after 18 Senators—a majority of the Senate—signed a letter encouraging the UT System Board of Regents to conduct their external review of the UT Law School Foundation through the office of the state attorney general. The letter calls the review approved at the regents’ March 20 meeting unecessary and duplicative. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst echoed those concerns on Wednesday. Board of Regents chairman Gene Powell sent a letter in response to those senators Wednesday ensuring that the UT System had been in touch with the Attorney General’s office.

The committee is expected to vote on an updated draft of Senate Bill 15 next week. Seliger, the main author of the bill, said he hopes his colleagues consider the massive responsibilities of university boards as they move forward.

“This sort of duty calls for accomplished and dedicated people,” said Seliger. “And yet there is, if you will, a right way and wrong way to exercise that great power, in that it enhances the function of these important and special institutions.”

Alcalde file photo.


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