As the tense relationship between UT and the UT System continues, the UT System Board of Regents reshuffled its leadership in its meeting Thursday.
The board elected Regent Paul Foster as chairman, while naming former Chairman Gene Powell and Regent Steve Hicks as the board’s vice chairmen going forward. The change comes in the wake of accusations by state legislators that the regents have been conspiring to oust President William Powers Jr.
After the meeting, Foster said he hoped to move past the controversy and affirmed his support for Powers.
“I’m very supportive of [Powers],” Foster said. “He’s our president.”
The University has had a particularly difficult relationship with the regents since 2011, when some regents sought to make significant changes to UT’s curriculum, according to student leaders. Tensions have also been high among some students and faculty, who claim regent actions have been too intrusive.
University-affiliated external foundations, which raise funds for the University with little oversight from administrators, became a point of contention after it came to light that former UT School of Law Dean Lawrence Sager received a $500,000 forgivable loan from the UT Law School Foundation in 2011. Sager later resigned at Powers’ request.
Powers said he was not aware of the loan at the time, although Regent Wallace Hall accused Powers of knowing about its existence. The regents formed the Advisory Task Force on Best Practices Regarding University-Affiliated Foundation Relationships to create guidelines for relationships between foundations and system institutions. The task force presented its final report at last week’s board meeting and will release its final written report this week.
More recently, the controversy has centered on Hall, who faces possible impeachment from the Texas Legislature. Hall’s large open records requests from the University caused state legislators to accuse him of micromanaging the University and working with other regents to remove Powers as part of what has been called a “witch hunt.”
Hall is now being investigated by the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, which met multiple times over the summer as part of the investigation.
At the committee’s July 29 meeting, Co-Chair Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said Hall would likely be one of the first witnesses called to testify before the transparency committee at future hearings. The committee has stated that it would begin holding the hearings in late August or September. On Friday, the committee hired Houston attorney Rusty Hardin as its special counsel for the investigation.
If impeached, Hall would be the first state appointee to be impeached in state history.
In cooperation with the investigation, UT decided to cancel and suspend all open records requests from the UT System, including any requests made by Hall. At last week’s meeting, the board approved a compliance review regarding the Texas Public Information Act, to ensure the system administration, UT and two other system institutions are in line with the law.
In a letter sent to the transparency committee co-chairs Thursday, Stephen Ryan, Hall’s attorney, defended Hall’s actions and claimed Hall has evidence that two state legislators inappropriately influenced UT officials to accept two students to the University.
While the investigation into Hall continues, the regents’ decision to invest $10 million into MyEdu in 2011 has also come under criticism over the summer from former student leaders as the company continues to expand its website to offer career services to students. At the board’s July meeting, MyEdu Chairman and CEO Michael Crosno explained the changes in a presentation to the regents on its move to include career services on its website.
“What MyEdu has always been about is helping kids succeed in college. We really focused in on how we can bring in jobs,” Crosno said. “This is a marketplace that puts supply and demand together.”
The company also made changes to its professor review system by removing negative reviews from students as well as its star-rating system.
However, in July, Michael Morton, former president of Senate of College Councils who served on UT’s MyEdu steering committee, raised concerns about the system’s partnership with MyEdu.
“It presents a lot of ethical dilemmas when there’s a partnership between the UT System and MyEdu if students’ information is being given to employers,” Morton said. “It really presents a lot of questions regarding what information is being used and how employers are having their jobs targeted toward students.”
While the House Transparency Committee’s investigation into Hall will continue into the fall, electing Foster as chairman might be one of the last acts of the regents for a while, as they are not scheduled to meet again until mid-November. Steven Leslie, UT’s executive vice president and outgoing provost praised the new chairman and his plan to move forward.
“I’m confident that he’s going to be a powerful leader of the University of Texas System as our new chairman, and I think the University of Texas at Austin will advance strongly under his leadership,” Leslie said.