Bill to limit boards of regents approved by committee, moves to full Senate

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The Senate Higher Education Committee voted 4-1 to move a bill before the Texas Senate that would limit the power of university boards of regents over individual institutions within a system.

The bill, filed by committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would prevent regents from voting on personnel and budgetary matters without first undergoing ethics training and being confirmed by the Senate. It would also amend state law to delegate all powers not specifically prescribed to boards of regents to individual institutions.

State Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, were not present for the vote.

Seliger filed the bill in response to ongoing tension between the UT System Board of Regents and President William Powers Jr. Legislators have alleged that regents are micromanaging the University. 

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, cast the lone dissenting vote, citing concerns that legislators are acting to handle one conflict.

“I tried to look at this through the 30,000-foot view of how we are structurally changing the relationship between boards of regents and universities,” Birdwell said after the meeting. “You’re widening that moat that essentially makes it more difficult for the people to express their desires of how our institutions and systems that are public are governed from those executing that governance.”

Regents are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate and serve six-year terms. Gov. Rick Perry appointed all nine of the current regents sitting on the UT System board.

The committee adopted two amendments to the bill.

One would require regents to receive training regarding the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA. The law is intended to give students the right to privacy of information regarding enrollment, grade performance and billing information unless they give permission to institutions to release that information.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the vast amount of "vague" information requests regents have made of the University may inadvertently include information regarding students, which may violate the act and would result repercussions from law enforcement officials.

Another amendment would prevent regents from voting before they are confirmed by the Senate Nominations Committee. If the committee does not meet within 45 days, regents will be allowed to vote if they have completed training required by law. As of now, the committee has not yet scheduled a hearing for newly appointed Regents Jeff Hildebrand and Ernest Aliseda. Perry appointed Hildebrand and Aliseda in February, along with reappointing Paul Foster, who serves as the board's vice chairman.