Editor’s Note: State Senator Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who serves as chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee for the 83rd session, talked to The Daily Texan about the apparent ongoing dispute between the UT System Board of Regents and President William Powers Jr. During the interview, Seliger expressed exasperation about the "loggerheads" situation that has developed and placed blame for the squabbling squarely on the shoulders of the regents, going so far as to suggest that if open records requests show "something not conducive to good governance," Chairman Gene Powell should "think about resigning," and to say that Regent Wallace Hall "has falsified an application to the state of Texas as a regent." Below, edited for space and clarity, are his responses to our questions:
The Daily Texan: What will happen to UT in 15 years?
Kel Seliger: UT is going to be a leading worldwide institution in fifteen years. It can stand things that are going on now as long as it offsets them with periods of good governance and visionary leadership and things like that...It is such a great university that it can withstand periods of deficient governance and that’s good.
DT: What is it that you think students should know about the current public disagreement among the University’s different governing parties?
Seliger: ...I want to make sure people understand that a lot of the drive for efficiencies and economies are good ideas and they are well-placed. I think [Powers] has made no secret that one of his biggest priorities is excellence. In an institution that’s already very large, how does that institution get better? And in that respect, I think he ought to do exactly what he wants to do. What he cannot do is remain at loggerheads with his Board of Regents long term.
DT: How are [the relationships of the UT president, the Board of Regents and the Legislature] supposed to function?
Seliger: I’m glad you asked that...Essentially the Board of Regents are the governing board. There’s really one person who answers to the regents and that’s the Chancellor. And the president answers to the chancellor and the deans and provosts answer to the president. Now then, the regents have a clear role to play when it comes to the employment of somebody like the president. And they have a right to investigate and look at anything, but it’s the efficiency of governance and the hierarchy of governance that’s important.
DT: A couple of weeks ago [during a Senate Higher Education committee hearing on Wednesday, March 27] you said something about it not being a question of power, but the way people use their power?
Seliger: Isn’t that always true, though, if you think about it? Think about it here, it’s how you use the power of your office. I have a substantial amount of power; I have to be careful how I use it … And so to me it’s very participatory. They [the regents] have lots of power. I said the difference is propriety — it’s when to use it and how to use it. To sit around and use all that power to undermine the president of the University, when they can fire him in a heartbeat, is a useless utilization of power.
DT: How, then, should the regents go about considering the very real questions of cost and efficiency and effectiveness?
Seliger: I think it’s important for the Legislature not to prescribe to them how they ought to do their jobs. They ought to always act in the best interest of the University and the System. Some do, some don’t.
DT: Can you summarize what it is that the regents want for UT and what it is that the Legislature wants for UT and why it’s different.
Seliger: I can’t tell you what the regents want for UT; it’s become very, very personal. It appears some of them simply want President Powers gone, and some of them want the University to be as good as it can be, as competitive as it can be in a worldwide sense. What does the Legislature want for a University? We want a University that all Texans can be proud of. What the Legislature does not want to do is get into governing those Universities. That’s not our job.
DT: Many of the regents are leaders in business and industry, and they develop leadership skills specific to those jobs. How are they supposed to develop leadership skills specific to university governance, what are those skills and what role does or will ethics training play in the development of those skills?
Seliger: Ethics in a way is a different issue, because it's more about conflicts of interest and things like that. The Board of Regents are almost all of them very successful, very accomplished and very wealthy. Sometimes those skill sets do not translate to enterprises that are very, very open and … answer to other bodies. … Just because someone is a successful businessperson, it does not mean that they’re going to be as exceptional in other endeavors, and I think our current episode goes to show that.
DT: So do you believe the regents understand that they’re public figures?
Seliger: I do not. Clearly, when they choose to avoid giving information to the Legislature that has to do with things that go on at the UT Board of Regents with the University, clearly they don’t [understand that they’re pulbic figures].
DT: What do you specifically think about Gene Powell’s appeal to the attorney general [to withhold requested documents from legislators]?
Seliger: I think it will not be supported by law, and I think it’s going to go farther than that. What it’s really going to amount to is that there’s some information there that Mr. Powell does not want to reveal to the Legislature. And if there is anything there that shows something not conducive to good governance, then I think Mr. Powell’s going to have to think about resigning.
DT: Do you think that Wallace Hall [a regent who has come under fire for failing to disclose lawsuits in his application for Senate approval to become a board member] needs to resign?
Seliger: Mr. Hall has falsified an application to the state of Texas as a regent. I think it’s serious.
DT: What needs to happen in order for the current governing parties to rise above their disagreement and change? Or does there need to be a change in the people serving in those positions?
Seliger: I would like to think that people would wake up one morning or after a period of reflection and think there’s a better way to do this. Like I said, the Legislature’s not going to tell them how to do the job of governance. Right now what’s going on is not good governance.
DT: Is there any way for regents and President Powers, given all that has transpired, to trust one another?
Seliger: I would like to think so. My impression is [Powers] just wants to do his job. At the same time [the regents] signed up, most of them alumni of the University of Texas, to help that institution. And so, can they decide maybe what they’re doing is counterproductive and we need to do it in a different fashion? Sure they can. They’ve encountered problems and challenges in business before, and in some respects this isn’t any different.
DT: What do you think is at the root of the disagreement between the regents and Powers? What do you understand [their separate] visions to be and why are they different?
Seliger: I’m not sure what the individual visions are. I think I understand Bill Powers’ vision.
DT: What is his vision?
Seliger: I think it’s excellence more than anything else. It’s excellence and opportunity. It is the education provided by the university is a wonderful asset. I’m not sure the regents wouldn’t tell you exactly the same thing, but … if their vision diverges from that of the president, I think they ought to clearly state it. What is it that they expect the University to do? My understanding is that there are thoughts there that deans ought to teach more courses and we ought to have a lot more people in engineering and less people in the humanities. I don’t know exactly, that’s just sort of what I’ve heard anecdotally. I’m not sure that we’ve heard a clear statement of vision in all those areas.
DT: It seems in an age when it’s very expensive to run the University, the [regents’] competing vision, as we understand it, is the belief that a public university should maximize efficiency, accessibility and student enrollment?
Seliger: Every organization ought to maximize its resources, every one. Depends what those resources are and what the specific mission of that institution is. This is a public institution and it has an important role to play. At the same time, it cannot be accessible to every Texan. It can’t meet the needs.
DT: Should it be accessible to more Texans?
Seliger: I would like it if it could be more accessible to everybody, but in what areas now is it inaccessible? You could say, ‘Well it costs too much.’
DT: It’s difficult to get in.
Seliger: It is difficult to get in. It’s not going to get any easier to get in because … I don’t think [the University of Texas at Austin] has the capacity to grow that much. But the population of Texas is growing by about 400,000 people per year. But, that said, look at the University of Texas [of the] Permian Basin, University of Texas [at] Tyler, University of Texas-Pan American. They are great universities that have tremendous capacity to grow, and are no less focused on excellence. And to look at the opportunities that exist in Texas and to relate them only to the major schools in the systems is wholly inaccurate.
DT: Is there anything important for the students to know beyond what we’ve already discussed?
Seliger: There’s lots important for them to know, but it’s important to know that a lot of this controversy is going on now because this University matters and the education [students] get matters … and the education their children and grandchildren get matters. It’s also important for people to know that a lot of higher education is going on in this state. With that happening, there will always be discussion and debate, a lot of times without a lot of turmoil. This too, will pass. I believe the University of Texas will thrive in the future, and it’s going to be even better based upon the vision of the people involved. I’m very optimistic.