"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you."
Betty King Room -- Earlier today, the Texas Senate nominations committee held a confirmation hearing for Governor Abbott's controversial U.T. regent nominees. The nominees faced a number of difficult questions from Committee Chairman Brian Birdwell, along with fellow committee members Konni Burton and Van Taylor. Senator Charles Schwertner, who has taken an interest in higher ed issues this session, spent more time at the hearing than several committee members.
Regent nominee Steve Hicks was the first to testify, A known defender of Bill Powers, Hicks is the only current nominee being re-appointed. While Hicks confessed that undue influence in the admissions process is undesirable, he nonetheless made the excuse that Powers was "the only one who sees the whole field of battle." Hicks also denied the obvious similarities between the current issues at U.T. and the 2009 scandal at the University of Illinois. Under questioning from Senator Burton, Hicks defended his vote against investigating the law school's secret "forgivable loan" program. Hicks also made the absurd claim that while regents are supposed to "ask tough questions," they are subsequently expected to accept whatever answer the administration gives them. Hicks could not provide answers to Senator Schwertner's questions about accounting gimmicks used to keep tuition "artificially low."
Nominee Sarah Martinez Tucker, who has come under fire for supporting Common Core, was up next. Asked about the forgivable loan program, she explained "I don't have a lot of specifics," which makes one wonder how she will perform her duties if she can't prepare for an obvious question in a confirmation hearing. Asked about her support for the controversial educational program, Tucker explained "I APPLAUD COMMON CORE." Pressed to explain, Tucker made vague claims about Common Core being bad for Texas but o.k. for other states. Asked by Senator Schwertner about the role of the student loan bailout she helped engineer in 2008 in higher education cost explosions, Tucker unconvincingly attempted to shift blame to the Obama administration. To her credit, Tucker spoke favorably about zero-based budgeting for the U.T. system.
David Beck faced the most intense questioning. Beck was a key player in creating the afore-mentioned forgivable loan program, and was mentioned by name in a scathing Attorney General's report released last year. Pressed by lawmakers, Beck claimed "we can't compete" in retaining faculty with public compensation. At issue was an undisclosed "deferred compensation" agreement with lame-duck university president Bill Powers during Powers' previous tenure as law school dean. Beck told Senator Burton he had assumed that off-book compensation agreements had made their way up the chain of command. As Senator Schwertner told Beck, seven years is a long time to not know the details of a compensation agreement not going up the chain of command. Beck was also unable to answer questions about cutting university costs, although he did oppose a tuition increase "at this time."
Tony McDonald testified against all three nominees. McDonald, who was a law student at U.T. during the height of the forgivable loan scandal, discussed professors of his who were visibly distracted by it. Regarding Hicks, McDonald objected that he could not clean up a mess he helped create. McDonald also explained that off-book compensation was not subject to open-record's laws. Finally, McDonald chided Beck for "a shocking refusal to take responsibility" for his role in creating the mess.
The committee adjourned following testimony; no vote on the nominees has been scheduled.
Today's hearing asked difficult questions of these controversial nominees. The committee maximized this point of leverage. The nominees answers left much to be desired, but at least they were asked to the questions. Kudos especially to Senators Burton and Schwertner for their question. It's a start....