Thursday, November 14, 2013

University of Texas Corruption: History and Future

Two must read articles about the Wallace Hall fiasco; first up, the American Spectator:
IN HIS 1951 book God and Man at Yale, the document that, to simplify only a little, launched the conservative movement, William F. Buckley, Jr. lamented what he later called “the phenomenon of the somnolent college trustee.” Looking back in 2007, Buckley concluded that little had changed in the intervening 56 years. “Mostly, the college establishment is regnant,” he wrote. “Trustees are expected to be affable creatures, preferably rich and generous. They are not expected to weigh in on college affairs, which are adequately handled by presidents, provosts, deans, and lesser administrative folk.”  
This was not always the case. Decades previous, boards of trustees (for private universities) or regents (for public universities) had real power, since they were composed of donors and alumni on whose good opinion the university depended for financial support. By Buckley’s day, their influence had waned, but the final act that cast regents and trustees off the seat of power came, along with much other mischief, in the 1960s. The federal government got into the higher-ed game with loans and grants. This opened college to students who otherwise couldn’t have afforded to attend—and that’s a good thing. But it also permitted schools to increase tuition and declare financial independence from private donors. 
WALLACE HALL, HOWEVER, means business—and it has landed him in the middle of a you-know-what-storm. The University of Texas regent, appointed by Rick Perry in 2011, faces potential impeachment in the state legislature for, primarily, filing too many requests for public records. State Rep. Jim Pitts, the man who has arguably led the charge to impeach, has accused Hall of conducting a “witch hunt” aimed at ousting Bill Powers, the president of the system’s flagship institution, the University of Texas at Austin.  
Hall has filed requests under the Texas Public Information Act for large amounts of information, including correspondence among UT Austin administrators and emails between Powers and state politicians. But he contends the method has achieved results. In a letter to state legislators, Hall’s lawyer pointed out three substantive findings from the regent’s efforts. 
The first relates to a now-defunct program, intended to help the UT Austin law school retain talent, under which a private foundation gave “forgivable loans” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to faculty as off-books compensation. The dean of the school, Lawrence Sager, received a $500,000 such loan but was forced to resign when the affair became public in 2011. Hall’s attorney wrote that, based on documents he has reviewed, Hall now believes President Powers knew of Sager’s loan as early as 2009. 
Second, the lawyer wrote, Hall has corrected the university’s method of reporting donations. In one case, the letter states, UT Austin had included temporary grants of software licenses in its fundraising tally, which inflated the number by $224 million. 
Third, Hall has evidence, according to the letter, that state legislators have contacted university officials and used their clout to influence the school’s admissions process. For instance, Hall’s attorney wrote that one senator, lobbying for a favored applicant who previously had been rejected, “reminded the UT Austin official of recent legislative action taken to benefit The University.” 
ONE THEORY IS that legislators are practicing politics through different means. Higher-education circles in the state have been roiled over the past several years by a set of proposals backed by Governor Rick Perry and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, some of which seem to have percolated into the UT chancellor’s Framework for Advancing Excellence. The plan aimed to increase learning and keep tuition and administrative costs in check by, among other things, ranking faculty on the number of students taught per unit of salary, putting more emphasis on student evaluations, and instituting bonus pay for particularly effective professors. 
UT Austin certainly does have room to improve. The school is ranked by U.S. News as no. 52 in the nation, though its $2.3 billion budget is about the same size as two schools ranked much higher, the University of Virginia (no. 23) and the University of Michigan (no. 28). 
BUT OTHERS SAY the situation is much more simple: Hall, on his march to reform, walked straight into a tangled web of powerful interests. UT Austin wields tremendous influence within the state in its own right. With its independent government relations office, PR shop, newsletters, magazines, and Texas Exes alumni association, the university can move public opinion. The school doles out prestigious alumni awards and gives prominent politicians free football tickets, or seats in the president’s box during home games. 
Personal and familial connections abound. Hall continues to push investigation into the “forgivable loans,” and the man under whom the program probably started, according to a university investigation, was none other than…president Bill Powers, who served as dean of the law school prior to the ousted Lawrence Sager. Hall claims to have evidence to prove legislators interceded in the admissions process, and one state representative has now admitted that he wrote a recommendation letter on behalf of his son. That politican’s name? Jim Pitts, the appropriations committee chairman gunning for Hall’s impeachment. (Pitts contends the letter for his son was a “form letter” no different than any other recommendation he sends, though one suspects UT Austin officials noted the applicant’s surname.) 
There’s a whole lot of circular backscratching that Hall has the potential to disrupt. Witness how, when the temperature began to rise, those in politics and academia began to circle the wagons. Just weeks ago, the Association of American Universities elected Powers its leader. “He has been explaining to his state and the country the vital role these extraordinary institutions play in solving the nation’s most serious problems,” Hunter Rawlings said. In February, after a particularly contentious meeting between Powers and the regents, the Texas Senate passed a resolution in support of the UT president. For 40 minutes, senators sang Powers’ praise in what one Austin-American Statesman columnist called a well-choreographed performance. “So flowery were the comments,” the columnist wrote, “that Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, assured Powers, ‘This is not a eulogy.’” 
Legislators, clearly, would prefer the potted plants. The committee investigating Hall, which meets again this week, has not allowed the besieged regent to cross-examine those giving testimony against him. Nor has it notified Hall when—or whether—it will call him to tell his side of the story. Impeachment in Texas does not require any finding of criminality, leaving Hall’s fate to the personal opinions of members of the statehouse. “I think the standard for impeachment,” an attorney for the committee told the Texas Tribune, “is pretty much what the majority of 150 people are going to say.” 
The message from the whole affair is that any board member who raises his head above the foxhole can expect to take fire from all sides—from politicians, from faculty, from students, from the press. Already the lesson seems to have been internalized. Three current regents phoned about Hall’s case did not answer or return calls. 
But Hall himself seems ready to take on all comers
 Meanwhile, Tony McDonald of Empower Texans was at yesterday's 'proceedings':
Tuesday the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations met again to continue their tribunal against University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall.
First, the Committee alleged that Hall failed to properly fill out his regent application. That claim was blown up by committee member Rep. Charles Perry, amongst others during the Committee’s previous meeting.
The committee also claimed that the open records requests sent to UT by Regent Hall were “abusive.” But testimony yesterday from UT System attorneys revealed that all Hall did was ask that the University comply with the legally required deadline to respond to Hall’s requests as a citizen under the Public Information Act. Those requests required UT and UT System to work over a weekend in June to complete the review required in order for Regent Hall’s requests to be released. Essentially, the complaint was that Regent Hall made some government employees work over the weekend.
The major theme of the day, however, was a complaint that the committee and the committee’s self-appointed leader, Democratic State Representative Trey Fischer, pushed. Fischer alleged that Hall violated FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, by giving some important documents to his attorneys. The complaint was that Hall inadvertently received documents that were protected under FERPA (after asking the University not to release FERPA-protected documents to him) and then revealed those documents to his attorneys after members of the legislature began impeachment proceedings against him. The committee seems to expect that Hall would be aware (and would legally respect) a 2008 Department of Education “Guidance Letter” which suggests that FERPA-protected information can’t be shared with a person’s independent legal counsel. Fischer even went so far as making the legally dubious claim that Hall had violated state law by sharing the documents with his lawyers as part of his impeachment defense. 
The documents in question — I am led to infer — are emails between soon-to-be-retired Texas House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts and UT President Bill Powers’ staff in which he attempted (successfully) to get his adult son into UT Law despite being previously denied. The take-away of Holthaus’s testimony was that if that document was released to Regent Hall before the younger Mr. Pitts began attending the law school then the documents weren’t protected under FERPA at all. I also am led to ponder how a communication between an elected official and a university president can possibly be an “education record,” but I have yet to investigate FERPA in enough detail to make that determination. 
The testimony of lawyers from UT System’s Office of General Counsel was also enlightening. It was revealed, for the first time, that Regent Hall discovered documents in his search that, when put together, revealed that a crime may have occurred. The System’s lawyers said that Hall wanted to take the materials to the authorities but that he was hamstrung by FERPA. UT System General Counsel Dan Sharphorn also poured water on a sob story told by UT CFO Kevin Hegarty at the last meeting of the Select Committee. Hegarty had complained that he was denied legal counsel other than Sharphorn, who he had a conflict with. Sharphorn explained that, in reality, Hegarty had never made a request for outside counsel and that he actually has four of five attorneys at his disposal in UT’s Office of Vice President for Legal Affairs. This was just another revelation that the case against Hall isn’t what his persecutors pretend it to be.
 Read the whole thing here and here.

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