Board Should Approve Data Requests, New Regents Chairman Says

Board Should Approve Data Requests, New Regents Chairman Says

The days of individual University of Texas regents getting whatever information they want, whenever they want it, may be coming to an end. Today, the new chairman of UT’s board, Paul Foster, signaled his intention to end the practice of lone regents asking for and getting documents or data from the campuses without any approval.

At a specially called meeting conducted by teleconference, Foster announced his plans to change board policy so that all future requests for data must be approved by the full board or by the appropriate committee. He would make the formal recommendation at the regents’ November meeting, he said.

“I envision this process will involve review and approval by the Chairman and the appropriate committee chairman and will be made in consultation with the Chancellor concerning the scope, timing, and potential impact of the request,” Foster said.

The move is likely to be well received by legislators, many of whom have been troubled by the tendency of some regents to request voluminous records from UT-Austin. A select House Transparency Committee this week heard its first two days of testimony in their investgation of Regent Wallace Hall, who has been accused of violating his statutory duty as a regent and now faces the possibility of impeachment.

In Hall’s case, those requests may have been closer to demands. The committee got detailed accounts of how exacting regental records requests can and have been. The group heard from UT-Austin custodian of records and chief financial officer, Kevin Hegarty, and his colleague Carol Longoria about the dramatic spike in requests from regents and from Hall in particular, often with tight turnarounds.

Former UT System general counsel Barry Burgdorf testified that Hall and his allies on the board, including former chairman Gene Powell, ushered in a “sea change” in the board’s behavior starting in 2011. Request for records, which had been made from time to time for explicit reasons and in consultation with campuses, became voluminous and made without explanation.

Hall also broke with precedent by making additional requests as a private citizen through the Texas Public Information Act. Burgdorf implied that Hall’s requests may have been part of a campaign to oust UT-Austin president Bill Powers.

Foster’s election to chair the UT board was widely predicted, and he was considered by some to be a potential moderating influence on the board. Before the board voted to make Foster chair, his predecessor Powell joked that Foster’s candidacy for the top spot was the “worst-kept secret in Texas.”

He was reappointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the board this spring, and at his confirmation hearing he told legislators he did not approve of the “investigative nature” of some of his colleagues. At the time, Foster seemed to suggest that if was confirmed and became chairman, he would try to put a stop to it. This appears to be his first attempt to do so.

Hall, for his part, maintains that all of his requests for data have been appropriate for a regent to make. He has expressed concern with the way UT-Austin handles open-records requests, and he has said he doesn’t think it should be so hard to get information from the campus.

In what is perhaps another nod to the Lege, Foster said he wants regents to conduct the state’s business using their official UT email accounts. During the transparency committee’s hearing earlier this week, legislators questioned the logic behind regents solely using personal or business email addresses.

Contributing reporting by Andrew Roush. Photo courtesy Matt Valentine.

 

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