Lt. Gov. Dewhurst joins senators, community members in critique of regents' decision

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Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, discusses his intentions in authoring a bill that, if passed, would increase the influence of individual institutions over that of the university board of regents. 

Photo Credit: Pearce Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office should conduct a “duplicative investigation” of the UT Law School Foundation’s relationship with UT.

“I share the concerns of many Texas senators with the UT System Board of Regents voting to spend up to $500,000 or more to hire an outside law firm to conduct a duplicative investigation,” Dewhurst said. “With two prior audits revealing shortcomings that, I have been told, have since been fully corrected, spending an additional $500,000 of taxpayer and university money appears to many of our senators as a pretext to criticize the UT-Austin leadership.”

In 2011, President William Powers Jr. instructed Larry Sager, then dean of the School of Law and current faculty member, to resign as dean after Sager received a forgivable loan of $500,000 from the foundation. Last week, the regents voted 4-3 to conduct an additional external review of the foundation. 

An internal audit of the foundation conducted by Barry Burgdorf, UT System general counsel who resigned earlier this month, found the loan was awarded inappropriately. The attorney general’s office largely concurred with the report’s findings.

A letter signed by 18 senators sent to Board Chairman Gene Powell on Tuesday asked the board to seek the attorney general’s assistance if regents insisted on continuing what the senators called “an unnecessary probe.”

“We have deep concerns about the Board of Regents’ decision to needlessly engage in yet another investigation relating to The University of Texas Law School Foundation,” the letter stated. “This duplicative review, which targets [UT-Austin] for the obvious purpose of attempting to discredit its president, will be the fourth review of this matter.”

Powell responded in a letter Wednesday and said the board’s General Counsel Francie Frederick informed the attorney general’s office of the board’s possible actions prior to last week’s meeting. He said Frederick would brief Abbott and his first assistant Daniel Hodge if the board decided to investigate the foundation further.

“Please be assured that no decisions will be made on proceeding with this issue until this previously planned briefing of and discussion with the Attorney General occurs,” Powell said.

Dewhurst’s statement came after the Senate Higher Education Committee heard testimony Wednesday regarding a bill that would limit the powers of university boards of regents statewide.

Speaking to the committee, Michael Morton, Senate of College Councils president, said the board has interfered in University affairs through extensive open records requests that impede the University’s ability to conduct its regular business and by continuing the investigation. He said this climate drives away potential faculty and administrators.

“I’ve seen our University lose and struggle to recruit top-notch faculty members and administrators because of the political turmoil between our system’s board of regents and our institutions,” Morton said. “I’ve seen our student and alumni networks join together to support our university and our president against attacks from the group that, by the Texas Education Code, is supposed to preserve institutional independence and enhance the public image of each institution under its governance. Our Board of Regents has failed to uphold both of those roles.”

The bill, filed by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, would amend state law to give all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards to individual institutions within that system.

The bill would also prohibit regents from voting on personnel and budgetary matters until they undergo ethics training offered annually by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The committee took no action on the bill but will continue discussion next week.

One regent has extended their scrutiny of UT to institutions affiliated with but not governed by the University.

University Texas Exes CEO Leslie Cedar said an unnamed regent has repeatedly expressed displeasure through in-person conversations, emails and phone calls with how the alumni association has openly supported Powers and criticized regents. Cedar said she does not believe regents’ scrutiny regarding the association’s contracts with the University result from that criticism.

“The role of the alumni association is to champion the University, and we support administrators who line up directly with the mission of the University,” Cedar said. “So, we feel like it is our duty to speak up for and on behalf of the mission of the University.”

The Legislature is waiting to confirm Gov. Rick Perry’s three appointees to the board as it examines the board’s responsibilities.

State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who chairs the Senate Nominations Committee, said his committee will hold nomination hearings sometime after mid-April when scheduling conflicts with appointees clear up and if ongoing legislative discussion regarding regents subside.