Regents Yield to Legislative Wishes

After pressure from legislators, the board votes to turn over documents relating to UT-Austin but will ask the attorney general to investigate the UT Law School Foundation again.

Regents Bow to Legislative WishesAt a special called meeting Thursday morning, the UT System Board of Regents voted to turn over confidential documents legislators have asked to see, and to stand down on conducting an outside investigation of the UT Law School Foundation. Both decisions represent reversals, and both are likely the result of heavy legislative pressure.

Usually regents meetings are called by the chairman of the board. Not this one. Regents Steve Hicks, James Dannenbaum, Printice Gary, and Robert Stillwell banded together to summon their colleagues to meet after Powell, the chairman, sent a letter to the attorney general last week asking whether the System could withhold from legislators documents relating to UT-Austin. Powell’s letter irritated legislators, who have traditionally enjoyed access to any and everything they want to see.

Hicks, Dannenbaum, and Stillwell were the three regents who had previously voted against investigating further a now-defunct forgivable-loan program. To them, a UT System investigation that the attorney general’s office reviewed and corroborated was enough. They were in the minority—until today.

Let’s allow the experts—the Chancellor, his executive team, and the presidents—to do their job,” Gary said. “Let’s give them the support, the resources, and most importantly, the gratitude they so deserve.”

The regents will now ask the Texas attorney general’s office to look into the matter again, a compromise proposal that a group of state senators offered in a March 26 letter. Legislators have accused members of the board of regents of being on a “witch hunt” to oust UT-Austin president Bill Powers, and they have drafted multiple bills restricting regent power and sapping financial support from the System administration. Senate Bill 15 by higher education chair Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and others, which would more carefully define the role of boards in university governance, passed the Senate Thursday afternoon.

Following a closed-door session that ran well over schedule, the regents met briefly in public and voted to release any and all System documents being requested “as soon as reasonably possible,” noting that sensitive documents may be marked as classified.

The board showed a united front, praising each other’s work and the work of UT System employees, administrators, and institutional presidents, despite recent public disagreements. One regent had defended the board’s decision to conduct an external review; a separate regent said it was “beating a dead horse.”

Regent Gary said that the ongoing controversy between regents and the Texas Legislature had “inadvertently cast a shadow” over the UT System. He worried that the fallout from a protracted battle could harm “innocent” UT employees, and said the board should focus on providing resources and support to System institutions, and promoting excellence.

“Let’s allow the experts—the chancellor, his executive team, and the presidents—to do their job,” Gary said. “Let’s give them the support, the resources, and most importantly, the gratitude they so deserve.”

Regent  Dannenbaum dispelled reports that Powell had not sought legal counsel before asking the attorney general’s office about withholding documents.

“I know differently, and I think it’s important for the public to know,” Dannenbaum noted, saying Powell had discussed the matter with “at least six” UT System attorneys. The System’s outgoing general counsel, Barry Burgdorf, was not among them.

Two new regents have been nominated, and current Regent Paul Foster has been re-nominated. All three nominations face Senate confirmation.


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