In tense meeting, Board of Regents votes to commission external audit of UT Law School Foundation


Update - Reaction from President William Powers Jr. after the Board of Regents' decision: 

"Any implication that what occurred today is [about] not being transparent or forthcoming with information to the System or perhaps to the Regents is simply false.  If that was an implication I think that’s the most important thing to dispel... Executive session is not open and I’m not at liberty to talk about that. But I will say that, again, any impression that there were facts that we were not forthcoming with is simply not true... The Burgdorf report looked into this. The Attorney General looked into this. The audit committee is now auditing. That’s still in progress. We have cooperated and been forthcoming with information at every stage.”

Original story

After an uncharacteristcally heated meeting, the UT System Board of Regents voted Tuesday to continue the investigation of the UT School of Law Foundation’s relationship with the University, including an additional external review at the recommendation of the board's Audit, Compliance and Management Review Committee. The vote passed with a narrow 4-3 margin.

The specially called meeting — held during a period of escalating tension between the regents, the Texas Legislature and President William Powers Jr. — featured several moments of conflict.

The Audit, Compliance and Management Review Committee formerly recommended an external review of the use and management by UT-Austin of funds provided by the foundation to supplement the committee’s investigation.

During the tense meeting, several regents said they were concerned with the use of taxpayers’ money on an additional review. Regent Steven Hicks referred to the $500,000 price tag of an conducting an additional investigation as “beating a dead horse.” Hicks said the System has steered toward a board-driven entity in recent months, and that he did not approve of this shift.

“There have been times in the last two years where not only I have not been proud, I’ve been somewhat ashamed of being a UT regent, and that’s a real travesty to me,” he said.

Regent Wallace Hall defended the committee’s recommendation because he said the System continues to receive documents that were not included in an initial open records request he made recently. The open records request was far-reaching, requesting boxes of University documents over the course of the last 18 months.

In 2011, Powers asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, to resign after concerns arose regarding the foundation’s forgivable loan program. Though Sager received $500,000 through the program, Powers has said he was not aware of the loan at the time it was made. This assertion was contradicted at the meeting, when Hall said he had discovered evidence that Powers was aware of the forgivable loan and had chosen not to address the matter. Powers denied to reporters that he had been anything less than transparent in his dealings with the regents.

The program was used as a tool to recruit and retain top law faculty from across the country to UT by offering them forgivable loans if the faculty members agreed to stay for a certain number of years. The foundation and its program are funded by UT alumni and other donors. 

The Regents' audit committee also recommended setting aside a previous report on the foundation’s relationship with the University released last November.

System vice chancellor and general counsel Barry Burgdorf, who announced his resignation earlier this month, wrote the report, which concluded that the forgivable loan program was conducted in a manner that was “not appropriate.” The report laid out the history of the forgivable personal loan program, which began in 2003 while UT-Austin President Bill Powers served as law school dean. The program was then expanded under Sager.

In the report, Burgdorf recommended permanently ending the program and awarding compensation to faculty through restricts gifts rather than direct payouts during hiring.

At a House hearing on transparency in state operations last week, foundation board president John Massey said the foundation was in the process of phasing out the forgivable loan program and finding new incentive programs to help attract top faculty to the University.

The System created a task force to look into the incident last year and was supposed to provide their results later this spring.

Earlier this week, Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UT System, directed Powers to not delete any emails from electronic devices in or accessed by the Office of the President over the course of the audit review of the Law School Foundation.

Regents Hall, Alex Cranberg, Paul Foster and Brenda Pejovich voted in the majority to continue the investigation with an external review, while regents Hicks, James Dannenbaum, and Robert Stillwell voting against continuing the review process.

Cranberg said the external review would provide a more comprehensive view of the events that led toward lapses in governance that have been fixed. Stillwell said he was happy with Burgdorf’s report, which was also reviewed by the staff of the Office of the Attorney General.

Tensions surrounding the Board of Regents have escalated in recent months. In February, after a meeting at which Powers was intensely questioned by the board, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus relaunched the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance Excellence, and Transparency. At the committee’s first meeting yesterday, members requested information from the system required to investigate allegations the board was “micromanaging” UT administration.

The Texas Legislature also recently passed three resolutions honoring Powers. At the ceremony following the resolutions, Dewhurst became emotional, telling Powers “we are lucky to have you.”

I believe in reform, and I know that Bill Powers believes in reform,” Dewhurst said. “That’s why I’m particularly troubled when I see UT regents go around this man. I see them trying to micromanage the system.”

Dewhurst also referred to what he called “character assassination” plots launched against Powers and his family.

In a statement, board chairman Gene Powell said these allegations “surely had to be the result of misinformation and were either incorrect or inaccurate.” Powell, regent Printice Gary and student regent Ashley Purgason were not present at Wednesday's meeting.