After Tough Questions, Three UT Regents Confirmed

Regent Foster earns another term and two new regents are confirmed following an intense marathon hearing.

After Tough Questions, Three UT Regents Confirmed

You know how it goes. With great power comes great responsibility. With great risk, great reward. And here’s a new one: with tough questions comes a tough job. At least that’s the case for three of Gov. Rick Perry’s nominees to the UT System Board of Regents who were confirmed by the Texas State Senate Friday, just four days after a harsh, hours-long hearing where the nominees faced intense questions over the nature and responsibility of university governing boards.

Now, Paul Foster of El Paso, Jeff Hildebrand of Houston, and Ernest Aliseda of McAllen will carry that responsibility until 2019. All three were confirmed by a vote of 30-1, with Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) voting against, as he had threatened Monday. Whitmire said regents were “on a mission” to oust UT president Bill Powers. Hildebrand and Aliseda will replace Regent Printice Gary and Vice Chair James Dannenbaum.

How senators view that responsibility was clear at Monday’s hearing. Legislators want regents to move past the current controversy over alleged micromanagement at UT-Austin—and the nominees committed themselves to doing so.

As we reported Monday:

The senators spent most of the hearing asking Regent Foster, who has been on the board for six years already, to answer for a series of events that has irked legislators, from the decision to investigate a now-defunct forgivable loan program to massive and ongoing data requests to what legislators perceive as dilly-dallying with turning over documents they wish to see. Foster, who is considered a swing vote on the board, said he did not condone the actions of some of his colleagues.

Hildebrand, a Houston energy executive, said he thought the ongoing tension was “damaging the UT brand,” and that he would do all that he could to keep his (possible) future colleagues focused on setting vision and not micromanaging, a charge the board has faced from legislators. Nor was he coming into the job to do the bidding of his longtime friend Jeff Sandefer, author of the Seven Solutions, or with orders to fire Powers.

In a floor speech on the nominees Friday afternoon, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member (D-Laredo), said the harsh questions Monday were not necessarily caused by the nominees themselves, but by a group of what she called “rogue regents.” She launched into a litany of concerns about some regents’ “double standard” regarding transparency, including their slow response to legislators’ requests for records, while they themselves had requested massive amounts of data from UT-Austin.

She insisted that the Senate likely had the votes to block the nominees, and said many regretted confirming Regents Cranberg, Hall, and Pejovich in 2011. She noted, however, if the Senate blocked the current nominees so late in the session, Perry could make recess appointments of un-vetted candidates.

In the end, the second-most senior Texas senator said she would “unenthusiastically” vote for the nominees.

Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) said that legislators had acted throughout the session to make their oversight role clear, including making the termination of a university president an explicit duty of the chancellor, not regents. He asserted that the confirmation of Gov. Perry’s nominees was another part of that oversight process.

“In the hearing, we heard unmistakable commitments [from the nominees] to move past the divisiveness, controversies, hidden agendas, investigations, and the war metaphors that have taken a toll on this System, and the University we all value,” Watson said.

Higher education chair Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), whose Senate Bill 15 would clarify some regent powers if signed by Perry, said that he, along with his fellow senators had “made some mistakes,” in confirming previous appointments. But the current nominees—now regents—had expressed their understanding of the proper role of governing boards.

“They realize,” he said, “that their activities as regents are going to be very, very carefully scrutinized by the people in this body.”

Regents Foster, Aliseda, and Hildebrand will join the board as the System creates a new university in South Texas, and UT-Austin builds a new medical school, challenges that senators praised in their remarks prior to the vote. They’ll also have to contend with continued scrutiny of their actions from lawmakers, the media, and the public.

“I wish them good luck, and I look forward to working with them,” said Watson.

In a statement, UT-Austin president Bill Powers said he was looking forward to working with the new regents to make UT-Austin the best public research university in the nation.

Photo courtesy Phil Roeder via Flickr Creative Commons.


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