The House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations questioned three UT System officials about President William Powers Jr.’s resignation and recent controversies surrounding Regent Wallace Hall for more than three hours at a meeting on Wednesday.
The committee invited UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, Paul Foster, Board of Regents chairman, and Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor of academic affairs, to testify. Texas Exes President Kay Bailey Hutchison was also invited but said she could not appear because of a scheduling conflict.
Earlier this month, Cigarroa asked Powers to resign by the end of October. Powers requested that he be allowed to stay on through the legislative session. After initially deciding to discuss the matter with the regents, Cigarroa agreed to Powers’ request on July 9 with his resignation date set for June 2, 2015.
Citing a recent conversation he had with Powers in the weeks before the resignation request that “went public” as an example, Cigarroa told the committee he asked for Powers’ resignation because of their difficult working relationship.
“Fundamentally, it came back to a breakdown in communications and a breakdown in trust,” Cigarroa said.
While he and Powers had been discussing an exit plan for more than a year, Cigarroa said recent issues that continued to strain their relationship pushed him to pursue his resignation.
“This not been easy for me. It just has not,” Cigarroa said. “At the end of the day, I have to make a decision that’s in the best interests of the University.”
The committee asked about the System’s response to a letter to Foster sent by the committee co-chairs on July 7, requesting no employment action be taking with witnesses with Powers or any other witness to the committee’s investigation into Hall.
At the regents meeting on July 10, Foster asked legislators not to try influencing personnel matters at UT institutions.
One of the committee co-chairs, state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, defended the letter and said the committee was doing its job.
"With all due respect, you're public servants, and you're accountable to the people of Texas,” Alvarado said. “Legislative directives and investigations would be necessary, quite frankly, if you had your house in order.”
Foster, who said the System followed the the co-chairs' instructions, called the letter “offensive” and said the legislature did not have the authority to make such a request.
“In my view, it is not appropriate for the legislature to intervene and try to influence personnel decisions at the University of Texas,” Foster said.
The committee members also asked the officials about Hall’s recent conduct, including a recent records request for Powers’ travel records.
The committee has been investigating Hall since June 2013 after state legislators accused him of overstepping his authority as a regent and working to remove Powers from his position. In May, the committee determined grounds for Hall’s impeachment exist in a 7-1 vote.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, asked the officials about emails obtained by The Texas Tribune in June showing Hall sought a private meeting with Kedra Ishop, the University’s admissions director at the time, in March and May.
Before the committee, Cigarroa said the meeting did not occur because the Travis County District Attorney’s office stepped in and cited Ishop as a potential witness in its criminal investigation into Hall having potentially violated student privacy laws.
Cigarroa said his authority to prevent Hall from inquiring into such matters is limited. Foster, who made comparisons between Powers and Hall, said he would be cautious to enact any rule changes to that ability.
While the committee took no further action in drafting the articles at Wednesday’s meeting, the members did discuss multiple options it can pursue going forward. Martinez Fischer said the committee should consider writing “best practices” for state university governing boards instead of drafting articles of impeachment against Hall.
State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, said he would like for the committee to wait for the criminal investigation into Hall to develop before pursuing impeachment further. Price said the committee could “pursue multiple avenues” including a public censure or reprimand against Hall that offers guidelines to regents.
State Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said he was cautious of setting a precedent of legislative micromanagement over the System. In May, Perry gave the only vote against grounds existing for Hall's impeachment.
The committee’s next scheduled meeting is on Aug. 11.