After tense meeting, UT Regents cast narrow vote to continue Law School investigation

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

During an uncharacteristically heated meeting Wednesday, the UT System Board of Regents voted to continue an investigation of the UT Law School Foundation’s relationship with the University.

In a narrow 4-3 vote, the board voted to conduct a new external review at the recommendation of its Audit, Compliance and Management Review Committee.  

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

Several regents said they are concerned taxpayers’ money will be wasted on an additional review, while Regent Steven Hicks referred to the $500,000 price tag of conducting an additional investigation as “beating a dead horse.” Hicks said the System has steered toward a board-driven entity in recent months, and he does 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,” Hicks 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 from 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. At the meeting, Hall said he had discovered evidence that Powers was aware of the forgivable loan and had chosen not to address the matter. Powers denied he had been anything less than transparent in his dealings with the regents.

“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,” Powers said. “The [previous report conducted by System General Counsel Barry Burgdorf] 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.”

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

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.” 

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

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a lobbying group which describes itself as hoping to advance transparent dialogue and improve educational opportunities in the state, released a statement condemning the meeting as part of a “continued vendetta” against the University and its leaders. 

“These regents insist on undermining our institutions leaders and creating a culture of distrust and micromanagement,” the statement read. “We applaud Regents Dannenbaum, Stillwell and Hicks for speaking publicly about their concerns and resisting this effort.” 

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo and co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency that was relaunched in February, said he understands the Regents’ responsibility to investigate the foundation, but he had questions about the specifics of the decision.

“I don’t think it’s unusual for the Regents to want to know the full story,” Seliger said. “Though I am curious as to why their first investigation has been found inadequate … I do think that it is very, very expensive, and I hope they’re going in with good advice and with a plan.” 

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. At the committee’s first meeting Tuesday, members requested information from the system required to investigate allegations the board was “micromanaging” UT administration. 

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.

The Texas Legislature also recently passed three resolutions honoring Powers. In an emotional address on the Senate floor, Dewhurst condemned 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.