Censure Readings: The Higher Ed Week in Review

Censure Readings: The Higher Ed Week in Review

The Hall of Government

This week began with the news that legislators were, after more than a year of investigation, taking action in the case of UT regent Wallace Hall. The member of the UT System’s governing board has been closely watched for his own probes into UT-Austin, which many believe to be part of an effort to oust UT president Bill Powers.

Here’s how we reported the story:

A Texas legislative body investigating UT System regent Wallace Hall took action today after months of deliberation. After nearly four hours in a closed-door session, the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations voted 6-1 to release a document of admonishment and censure of Hall. Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) was the sole vote against censure.

Legislators were quick to note that passage of the censure does not preclude the possibility that Hall may still be impeached. “We will continue to weigh our options,” said co-chair Carol Alvarado (D-Houston).

The censure itself is a way of publicly decrying Hall’s behavior, but doesn’t carry any kind of material penalty—though the committee members were conspicuous in letting the public know that their options remained open.

Hall is also still under the watchful eye of the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which is charged with determining whether the regent broke in laws regarding the handling of protected student records. Hall and others have insisted that legislators have used their influence to have undeserving students accepted into UT, particularly at the Law School. Those allegations have led to their own investigations.

After the motion to admonish Hall was passed, the responses, in the time-honored form of pre-written statements, came fast and furious.

Railing against what he called distortions and untruths, Hall wrote that the committee, appointed by Texas House speaker Joe Straus, was little more than a failed political experiment:

The committee’s findings are based on distortions, untruths, and intentional misrepresentations. Speaker Straus and his committee have abused the public’s trust and money to cover up their improper interference in System operations, including to defend a university president who was repeatedly asked to leave. Intimidation of non-paid public servants by an “experimental” committee should not be tolerated by the public, the media, or other Texas officials.

Straus, unsurprisingly, disagreed, saying the committee’s work would prevent future imbroglios:

Today’s vote sends a clear message: The Legislature encourages regents and other executive appointees to ask difficult questions of the agencies in their care. But when appointees’ actions begin to harm those agencies—as Regent Hall’s repeatedly have—the Texas House will not ignore its own oversight role. Going forward, the monitoring requirements imposed by today’s resolution will prevent the types of abuses that this committee has discovered over the last year.

Other regents weighed in, notably Board of Regents chair Paul Foster, who called the committee’s implication that the UT System had seen a loss of institutional control “erroneous.”

Individual regents have broad authority under the Texas Education Code and UT System rules and policies to inquire about matters at the System and at our institutions, and each has exercised this authority within the established parameters. Furthermore, UT System officers at all times have been fully compliant with the Texas Education Code and Regents’ Rules.

While I and others may not always concur with the style and methods employed by Regent Wallace Hall, I will affirm that he has always diligently worked to further what he sees as the best interests of the UT System.

In a somewhat unusual move, former chairman and current vice chair Gene Powell, whose time as chair covered much of the period that the committee looked into, also released a statement.

In reading the Motion of Admonishment and Censure I was astounded by the numerous incorrect, misleading and disingenuous statements that are included in the document. The UT System and our attorneys carefully laid out the facts on every issue considered by the Committee on Transparency. In the past when the Committee  made mistakes about the facts those errors were brought to the Committee’s attention.

Even Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed and has publicly defended Hall, voiced his support for the embattled regent:

Regent Hall has acted how I expect all appointees to act–in the best interest of Texas. He has rightly asked tough questions and held people accountable for their actions, even in the face of withering personal attacks. I hope today closes this ugly chapter and Regent Hall’s critics can stop wasting time and start focusing on what’s important, ensuring higher education is affordable, accessible, and accountable to all Texans.

The Houston Chronicle has collect the full versions of these statements and more here.

All’s Well in Aggieland

Also this week, the Texas Tribune reported on a number of recommendation letters from legislators to the president and chancellor of Texas A&M. And while similar accusations have rocked UT, they don’t seem to bother officials over in College Station.

The UT System announced Monday that New York-based investigative firm Kroll Associates had been hired to conduct the investigation. Per its contract with the company, the UT System agreed to pay up to $145,000 for the effort.

Asked if the existence of such letters would prompt a similar level of soul-searching, Steve Moore, an A&M System spokesman, said there were no plans to investigate, review, or alter their flagship’s admissions procedures.

The situations are not identical. No A&M regent has publicly accused the system’s largest university—as UT Regent Wallace Hall, through his attorneys, has said of UT-Austin—of succumbing to undue political influence and admitting unqualified applicants.

UT, Sans Francisco

The Tribune also brought us the latest on outgoing UT chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, the Valley-born surgeon whose tenure as top administrator has included the establishment of two new medical schools and a new university in South Texas. The headlines during his time in office, however, have focused on the tensions between some regents, like Hall, and UT-Austin’s Powers. Now, Cigarroa seems to be defending his record.

Cigarroa and Foster wrote a letter this week responding to a column by Hunter Rawlings, the president of the American Association of Universities, a prestigious group of research universities that Powers currently chairs.

While acknowledging that his tenure has corresponded with a period of political turmoil, he said it also was a time of major investment by the system in UT-Austin. He objected to insinuations that he has done Gov. Rick Perry’s bidding on policy or personnel decisions.

As an example, the chancellor noted a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education in July by Hunter R. Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, an organization of research institutions, as an “extremely troubling” example. Rawlings described an effort orchestrated by Cigarroa and Perry to push out Bill Powers, the UT-Austin president and chairman of the AAU.

At the time, Cigarroa had asked Powers to resign or face termination. The two ultimately agreed to a timeline that allowed Powers to resign next June.

“While you cited the politicization of higher education in your message and implied that the situation between President Powers and Chancellor Cigarroa was politically driven, be assured that it was not,” Cigarroa and Paul Foster, the chairman of the UT System board, wrote to Rawlings this month in a three-page rebuttal.

The board voted last month to name Adm. William McRaven the sole finalist to succeed Cigarroa.

Photo by Marsha Miller.


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