Lawmakers request information regarding regent, UT employee correspondence

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Members of a joint legislative committee announced Tuesday that they have requested information from the UT System Board of Regents necessary to investigate allegations that the board is “micromanaging” administrative decisions at UT.

Speaking at the first meeting of the relaunched Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, committee co-chair Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said he wishes to maintain a positive image of the state’s higher education institutions by understanding how university systems govern those institutions and if the governance structure needs to change.

“It would be my hope that the point here is to not create any harm to any particular system, certainly not to our state, and see if we can calmly and deliberately improve the situation at this one particular system and by application improve governance at all of our systems,” Branch said.

The information requests, addressed to Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell, seek a variety of communications and records between regents, System employees and University employees since Jan. 1, 2012, primarily communications sent “at the direction of a regent.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus relaunched the joint committee last month after regents intensely questioned UT President William Powers Jr. over a number of topics at a Feb. 13 board meeting.

The week after the board meeting, the Texas Legislature passed three resolutions defending and honoring Powers, culminating in a ceremony on the Senate floor. During an emotional testimony, Dewhurst decried the regents for “micromanaging” Powers.

Powell released a statement later that week defending the regents and saying that Dewhurst’s allegations “surely had to be the result of misinformation and were either incorrect or inaccurate.”

Two weeks ago, Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UT System, emailed Powers instructing him to refrain from deleting emails in or accessed by the Office of the President over the course of the pending audit review of the UT Law School Foundation. Powers asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, to resign as dean in December 2011 after it was revealed Sager obtained $500,000 in forgivable personal loans from the UT Law School Foundation. Sager still holds a faculty position in the Law School.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said Tuesday that regents are engaging in an effort to oust Powers that is distracting from the mission to administrate UT.

“I think there’s a witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt to try to remove one of our best presidents in the state of Texas, of our universities,” Pitts said. “And, I hope that we’ll be able to end these witch hunts and put this to bed so that the president of a tier-one university can govern that university and not have interference from the Board of Regents.”

Committee co-chair Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said constant controversy hinders higher education institutions’ missions to achieve excellence, which the committee aims to address.

Last month, Seliger filed a bill that would limit regents’ authority over the individual institutions they govern. It would amend state law to say that all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards of those university systems fall under the authority of the individual institutions of that system.

Seliger, who also chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said his committee will examine the bill within the next two weeks.

“There’s no point in waiting. We want to get it moving,” Seliger said.