Gene Powell

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell isn’t the only one who’s been paying attention to football head coach Charlie Strong’s core vales. 

At a special meeting over telephone conference call Friday, the UT System Board of Regents unanimously endorsed Strong’s rules of honesty, treating women with respect, and zero tolerance for drugs, stealing or guns.  

“Consistent with the Board’s and chancellor’s previous actions on student success and wellbeing and in the same spirit, I move that the Board of Regents express its full support for UT-Austin head football coach Charlie Strong and his unwavering commitment to teaching, cultivating, supporting and demanding outstanding character, strong moral fiber and high core values in the young men he is charged to lead and teach,” said Gene Powell, regent and Board vice chairman.

After Strong was hired by the University in January, the regents subsequently approved his $5 million contract to coach the team. Since then, Strong has removed nine players from the team for violating team rules. As of Saturday’s home loss to Baylor, Strong has a 2-3 record as head coach.

Goodell met with Strong on Sept. 28 to discuss the coach’s values. The NFL is currently reevaluating its player conduct policies after a number of domestic abuse cases sprung up throughout the league since the start of the season.

“There’s a reason that the commissioner of the NFL sat down with Coach Strong,” said Steve Hicks, regent and Board vice chairman. “It’s because of the things he believes in are the right thing. I think that Vice Chairman Powell’s motion will prove that we stand firmly for those core values and what they mean to our student athletes, other students, the players, the coaches and their families.”

The board also expressed its support for the UT-MD Anderson Cancer Center administration. The center, located in Houston, is currently being investigated by the American Association of University Professors for its use of seven-year term tenure.

“In recognition of the unique mission and international leadership of the University of Texas -MD Anderson Cancer Center in the fight against cancer, I move that the Board voice strong support for the outstanding work of the institution’s faculty, staff and administration,” Regent Robert Stillwell said. “I also move that the Board acknowledge appreciation for the work of the students, residents and fellows in training and for the trust shown by the patients receiving care at UT-MD Anderson.”

Photo Credit: UT System | Daily Texan Staff

Update (Aug. 21): The UT System Board of Regents approved the design changes to the new System administration building and the total project cost increase on Thursday.

Original Story (Aug. 20): After lengthy discussion, the UT System Board of Regents Facilities Planning and Construction Committee approved design changes to the proposed new System administration building, which would increase the total project cost to $133.1 million.

The item is subject to full boards approval on Thursday.

The System currently operates out of five buildings. By consolidating operations into one building, the System anticipates saving between $2 million and $6 million per year, which can be redirected toward “student success.”

If we can save money and redirect that to the missions of our campuses, that's exceedingly important,” Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said.

Expected to be completed in 2017, the new building will be located on Seventh Street between Colorado and Lavaca streets, across from Ashbel Smith Hall, which houses the current board meeting room.

The project was first approved in 2012 with a project cost of more $102.4 million. The proposed design changes increases the number of floors from 15 to 19 and the total square footage from 258,500 to 342,200.

The building will be constructed according to commercial design standards with the intention that 30 percent of it will be leased to outside tenants and 70 percent will haven an "open space" office design.

Regent Gene Powell brought up several concerns with the design, including the amount of open space, the new board meeting room and the pavement size at the main entrance.

Powell recommended the committee review the building’s design over the next few weeks before the item reaches the full board.

“I think this a very important project, and I think its one we’ve got to get right,” Powell said. “I’m not trying to delay the building or stop the building. I’m for the project.”

After Michael O’Donnell, associate vice chancellor for facilities planning and construction, warned the total project cost could increase if put on hold, the committee agreed to approve the project contingent on Powell’s concerns being addressed in the coming weeks.

UT architecture professor Larry Speck, who is also an architect at the firm designing the building, told the committee that the new building’s design will be practical and sensible.

“This is, as far as I can tell, a pretty bold step for the System,” Speck said.

Speck also said the design of the board meeting room in the new building will also be more efficient than the one currently used, which boasts large chandeliers.

I do hope that we auction off these golden chandeliers and use the money for student scholarships,” Regent Alex Cranberg said.

The UT System Board of Regents approved an allocation of $265.6 million of the Permanent University Fund for capital projects at its regular meeting Thursday.

The allocation was recommended by Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and outlined a $142 million allotment for the UT South Texas Project, which is dedicated to creating a new university in South Texas that encompasses existing UT facilities in the Rio Grande Valley.

“I would like to convey to this board that this would be the first time in the history of the University of Texas System where a board allocates Permanent University Funds to the Pan American Campus, the Brownsville campus and then the establishment of an academic building, for the region-wide school of medicine in Rio Grande Valley,” Cigarroa said in the meeting.

Vice Chairman Gene Powell choked up when making the motion to approve the recommendation. He said he was proud of how far the Board has come in their efforts to establish another University.

“Thank you for the opportunity to make this historic motion,” Powell said. “It’s really a great moment today.”

Of the remaining allocation, $10 million will go toward building an extension to the existing Texas Advanced Computing Center building on UT-Austin’s campus. The center is located at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus and focuses on advancing science through the use of advanced computing technologies.

The board also approved the construction of a new tennis facility at Whitaker Field because the existing Penick-Allison Tennis Center is scheduled to be demolished in May of 2014 in order to accommodate the construction of new Dell Medical School buildings. President William Powers Jr. recommended the action and said the projected total cost of construction would be $15 million, with funds coming from the money contributed by Auxiliary Enterprises — self-supported, UT affiliated entities, such as the Frank Erwin Center and UT Athletics, that contribute 3.25 percent of their gross revenue to the University.

“It is 12 outdoor tennis courts, grand stands, locker rooms, offices and support facilities,” Powers said.  “I can’t say it’s exactly court for court to [the Penick-Allison Tennis Center,] but this will satisfy our intercollegiate men’s and women’s tennis requirement.”

The Board also authorized an increase in funding for the construction of a pedestrian bridge connecting the Belo Center for New Media and the Jesse H. Jones Communications building across Dean Keaton. With the Board’s approval Thursday, the total project cost went from $65.765 million to $75.765 million. The Moody Foundation donated $50 million to the newly named Moody College of Communication in October and $5 million of the donation will go toward renovations.

New chairman of the Board of Regents elected

Regent Paul Foster will serve as the next chairman of the UT System Board of Regents after being elected to the position Thursday.

Foster replaces Gene Powell, who served as chairman since February 2011 and will continue to serve on the board. Foster, who was first appointed to board in 2007, said he would serve students as chairman.

“I look forward to working with the chancellor, the system staff, the presidents and their staffs, but most importantly, I recognize, and I know that most of you recognize, that we’re here for the students and for the future of this great state,” Foster said.

The regents also elected Powell and Steve Hicks to serve as vice chairmen, after Foster nominated them in his first act as chairman. Both Powell and Hicks’ terms expire in 2015. Foster’s current term expires in 2019 since he was reappointed to his second term as a regent by Gov. Rick Perry earlier this year.

The change in leadership comes after state lawmakers accused the regents of working to remove UT President William Powers Jr. from his position during the legislative session earlier this year.

After the meeting, Foster affirmed his support for Powers.

“I’m very supportive of [Powers],” Foster said. “He’s our president.”

Foster said he plans on meeting with Powers in the near future.

UT regent chairman defends Wallace Hall in letter to Jim Pitts

As the House Transparency Committee took a step closer to possibly impeaching UT System Regent Wallace Hall yesterday, board Chairman Gene Powell wrote a letter to Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, in defense of Hall’s actions.

In a recent opinion piece in the Austin American-Statesman, Pitts criticized Hall’s large open records requests for information from UT-Austin. Pitts also filed a resolution in the House to impeach Hall last month. In the letter obtained by Texas Monthly, Powell defends Hall’s actions.

“Clearly, Regent Hall’s activities are misunderstood and I fear may have been intentionally mischaracterized to you,” Powell said in the letter.

Powell states that Hall, as with any member of the public, has the right to view the documents he requested under the Texas Public Information Act. Hall did not seek information protected by FERPA or HIPAA. According to Powell, Hall has used the information to improve the UT System and UT-Austin.

“Regent Hall’s reviews of records have resulted in suggestions for process improvement and better governance at the U.T. System and at U.T. institutions,” Powell wrote. “He has provided observations about U.T. System and institutional inefficiencies and compliance concerns to Chancellor Cigarroa and to me.”

Powell added that Hall had not shared confidential information to individuals outside of the UT System.

The House Transparency Committee will continue to investigate Hall and plans on holding its next public hearing near the end of August. The committee has stated that it plans to use its subpoena power going forward in its investigation.

Follow Jacob Kerr on Twitter @jacobrkerr.

The UT System Board of Regents’ decision last week to disclose information requested by Texas lawmakers has not stopped legislative efforts to clarify regents’ proper adherence to the state’s open records law.

Board Chairman Gene Powell sought advice on April 5 from the Texas Attorney General’s Office regarding the legality of withholding information requested by lawmakers in March. 

This drew criticism from legislators and State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a bill last week to address regents’ adherence to the Texas Public Information Act, a state law that allows citizens to access government documents.

Zaffirini told The Daily Texan on Monday she had begun receiving documents from the System after regents voted Thursday to disclose the documents, but she will continue to push her bill, which has 16 co-sponsors.

“From my perspective, there is no justification for withholding any information from a legislator who requests information for legislative purposes,” Zaffirini said. “But, because [regents] seem to think that there is, we needed to address it through legislation.”

Under the act, state agencies have 10 days to seek an opinion from the attorney general’s office about whether they may withhold certain documents. Otherwise, agencies must allow requestors to view information.

Zaffirini said her bill, which was left pending in the Senate Open Government Committee on Monday, would clarify that the 10-day period also applies to lawmakers seeking information for legislative purposes. 

Zaffirini said it would also institute a rolling mechanism by which agencies would supply information as it became available during the 10-day period, not wait until they had compiled all information related to requests. This would apply to legislators and the general public.

UT spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the System began supplying documents requested by lawmakers on Friday. She said the System’s Office of General Counsel is compiling more documents in response to legislators’ requests.

In his letter to the Attorney General’s Office, Powell cited concerns that releasing information to lawmakers could possibly hinder an investigation into the UT Law School Foundation, which awarded a $500,000 forgivable loan to Lawrence Sager, then-dean of the School of Law. In 2011, President William Powers Jr. asked Sager to resign. However, Sager still holds a faculty position at the School of Law.

In an interview published Monday, Regent Wallace Hall told Texas Monthly that regents intended to comply with legislators’ information requests, but said he has concerns about how to handle requests “in a sensitive way.”

“The Legislature doesn’t fully understand what we’re about to give them,” Hall said. “We have issues — HIPAA, FERPA — that are ancillary to what I think they want to see, and we need to make sure that we treat that information according. There is certainly information in there that could chill the investigation if it is widely disseminated.”

Printed on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 as Regents comply with open record legislation 

Complying with requests from several Texas lawmakers, the UT System Board of Regents unanimously voted Thursday to release documents requested by legislators and allow the Texas Attorney General’s Office to conduct an investigation into the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School Foundation

The decisions came after several months of tension between the board, the Texas Legislature and UT President William Powers Jr. Regent Printice Gary acknowledged the tensions while speaking after the decisions were announced. 

“I think it is important we acknowledge that the reality of the controversy surrounding the Board of Regents and the Legislature has unfortunately and inadvertently cast a shadow on the University of Texas System,” Gary said. “Let’s remember that the Board of Regents is here to serve the System.”

Last week, board Chairman Gene Powell inquired to the attorney general’s office about the legality of withholding information after state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a broad open records request as a private citizen instead of in her capacity as a legislator. 

Though there is no specific deadline by which regents must respond to legislators’ open records requests, according to the Texas Public Information Act, governing bodies must handle all requests from private citizens in good faith and produce requested information “promptly.” If this cannot be done within 10 days, governmental bodies must recognize this in writing and set a date and hour when the records will be available. Alternatively, if there is a desire to withhold information, the governing body has 10 days to write to the attorney general asking for a decision.

Powell’s move spurred intense criticism from several legislators and prompted a three-page statement from Zaffirini. In it, she said she had heard the chairman’s behavior compared to that of former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

The board also reconsidered its March 20 vote to continue an external investigation of the relationship between the law school and its foundation. The investigation was criticized by legislators and individual regents themselves. Regents Steven Hicks and Robert Stillwell both referred to the external investigation as “beating a dead horse,” and Stillwell said the initial investigation, conducted by outgoing System general counsel Barry Burgdorf, was sufficient.

Powell maintained that the additional review of the Foundation is a necessary move but said he felt confident in the attorney general’s ability to conduct it.

“If I’d been here on the day of the [4-3] vote, I’d have been the 5th vote to continue the investigation,” Powell said.

In February, the Legislature relaunched the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency for the purpose of investigating regents’ alleged micromanagement of the University.

Committee members expressed relief and skepticism Thursday about the regents’ decisions to disclose documents and allow the Attorney General to investigate the foundation. 

Zaffirini said she was glad regents took lawmakers’ suggestions regarding the investigation into the foundation.

“However, I do think it’s a waste of time and effort and waste of state resources, because it’s been investigated again and again,” Zaffirini said. “I’m expecting the same results from the Attorney General’s investigation.”

Committee Co-Chairman and State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said he was pleased to see regents make both decisions and he expects regents to supply information requested by lawmakers within the next few days.

“To me, it’s two steps in the right direction,” Branch said.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the decision to disclose documents constituted the first step in ending conflict between regents, UT and the Legislature that has arisen during this legislative session.

“To be clear, this isn’t the end of this process, nor does it complete all of the board’s responsibilities to legislators and to Texans,” Watson said. “But, I do hope it’s a healthy, positive start.”

Hours after the board meeting, the Texas Senate approved a bill to limit powers of university boards of regents over individual institutions within university systems.

The bill, filed by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, was filed in response to the UT System Board of Regents’ alleged micromanagement of UT, specifically President William Powers Jr.

The House of Representatives must now vote on the bill, which would limit regents from “interfering” in the daily operations of universities under systems’ purview. It would also prohibit regents who were appointed when the Legislature is not in session from voting until nominees have appeared before the Senate Nominations Committee.

Chairman Wm. Eugene “Gene” Powell (left) and Regent Robert L. Stillwell (right) hear various proposals, including one for the new engineering building, during a UT system board meeting in January. The board approved the potential use of tuition revenue bonds.

Photo Credit: Pearce Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

The UT System Board of Regents voted unanimously today to release all documents requested by state legislators via open records requests, rather than attempting to withhold them as chairman Gene Powell had inquired about this month. The Board also voted unanimously to ask the Texas attorney general to take over an external review of the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School Foundation.

Powell inquired about the legality of withholding information after state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a broad open records request as a private citizen instead of in her capacity as a legislator. Though there is no specific deadline by which legislator’s open records requests must be responded to, according to the Texas Public Information Act, governing bodies must handle all requests from private citizens in good faith and produce requested information “promptly.” If this cannot be done in 10 days, the governmental body must recognize this in writing and set a date and hour when the records will be available. Alternatively, if there is a desire to withhold information, the governing body has 10 days to write to the attorney general asking for a decision.

In a letter to Abbott, Powell said the information requests might be harmful to the System’s ability to do its job.

“These requests have proved potentially damaging to the ability of the System’s governing board to fulfill properly its statutory and fiduciary duties,” Powell said in the letter.

Powell’s move spurred intense criticism from several legislators and prompted a fiery three-page statement from Zaffirini in which she said she had heard Powell’s behavior compared to that of former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

“While the specific regents and personnel involved in this response process have employed countless delay tactics to date, this one is not only the most innovative, but also the most outrageous,” Zaffirini said in the statement. “Perhaps [the Regents] do not understand the difference between ‘inconvenient’ and ‘confidential’...my only conclusion is that they have something to hide.”

Another issue at the center of today’s meeting was the board’s recent 4-3 vote to continue an external investigation of the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School foundation. The investigation, estimated to cost $500,000, was criticized by legislators as well as individual Regents themselves. Regents Steven Hicks and Robert Stillwell both referred to the external investigation as “beating a dead horse,” and Stillwell said the initial investigation, conducted by outgoing System general counsel Barry Burgdorf, was sufficient.

Regent Alex Cranberg defended the System’s decision and said he believed there were flaws in Burgdorf’s investigation.

“[The investigation] was so inadequate that I have heard complaints of it being a cover up,” Cranberg wrote in an email to the Texas Tribune.

Legislators also criticized the vote: In a letter signed by 18 state senators and sent to Powell, the senators asked the board to seek the attorney general’s assistance if regents insisted on continuing what the senators called “an unnecessary probe.”

Powell maintained that the additional review of the Foundation is a necessary move, but said he felt confident in the attorney general’s ability to conduct it.

"If I'd been here on the day of the [4-3] vote, I'd have been the 5th vote to continue the investigation,” Powell said.

James Madison, a founding father and our fourth president, once wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” This quote, the opening statement from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s introductory letter in the 2012 Public Information Handbook, speaks to the rationale behind the Texas Public Information Act. Formerly known as the Open Records Act, the law entitles each person to access information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees, except in cases expressly provided by law.

Under the law, public institutions, including the University of Texas System, are required to respond to open records requests for public information. When a person submits a written request to a governmental body, the public information act then requires that the body respond “promptly;” and the UT System further guarantees “customer-friendly service” in its handling of such requests.

All of this is consistent with the law’s mission to enforce “the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people.” But recent actions involving members of the UT System Board of Regents and legislators at the Capitol reveal that open records requests can easily be wielded as a weapon. In recent months a battle has consumed the regents and Texas legislators; open records requests have been filed at a dizzying pace. Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr., who led efforts seeking an additional, external review of the UT Law School’s forgivable loan program, drew attention when he requested thousands of documents from UT-Austin to conduct his own private investigation. Last week The Texas Tribune revealed that Hall had failed to disclose at least six federal and state lawsuits on his application to become a regent, as is required.

On March 28, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, made an open records request as a private citizen that the UT System provide her with documents pertaining to UT President William Powers Jr. and various regents. In response, Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell requested permission from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to withhold the information. Although the Public Information Act requires that responses be made promptly, Powell’s request could postpone his having to forfeit documents by up to 45 days, if Abbott denies his request. Zaffirini, in turn, cried foul, saying, “While the specific regents and personnel involved in this response process have employed countless delay tactics to date, this one is not only the most innovative, but also the most outrageous.” On Monday, Zaffirini filed a bill that would clarify the open records process and require the disclosure of documents that could “intrude and unduly interfere upon the power of a governing board of any agency within the executive branch established by the Texas Constitution to conduct its activities and fulfill its legal mandates and responsibilities.”

The Texas Public Information Act, considered a model for open records laws across the nation, is a point of pride for our state and for democracy as a whole. In a guest column in The Texas Tribune, Regent Alex Cranberg writes that he is “in favor of disclosure to the extent required by law and, beyond that, to the extent reasonably possible.” Open records requests are paramount in a democratic system that prides itself on transparency, and the need for their availability eclipses their value as weapons in comparatively short term political fights of the moment. An attempt like Powell’s to circumvent the legal procedure creates an appearance of being above the law. That appearance, false or not, threatens the reputation of the entire UT System.

The UT System Board of Regents will hold a special meeting Thursday to discuss several ongoing issues highlighting differences and growing divisions among the board itself.

The board’s agenda includes discussion about releasing information requested by members of the Texas Legislature and a recent vote to continue an external investigation of the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School Foundation. It will also address the constitutional and legal rights and responsibilities of the regents.

The meeting was requested by four regents — Steven Hicks, Robert Stillwell, James Dannenbaum and Printice Gary — after it was discovered Friday that board Chairman Gene Powell asked the Texas Attorney General’s office for permission to withhold documents requested by legislators. Generally, meetings can be requested by the board chairman or by three of the other regents.

System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the Board’s three vice chairmen — Regents Paul Foster, Hicks and Dannenbaum — were informed in advance of Powell’s decision to write to the attorney general.

Powell’s request to withhold information prompted sharp criticism from lawmakers. In a three-page statement, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she heard Powell’s behavior compared to the behavior of former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal and called the chairman’s request an “outrageous” delay tactic.

On his twitter account, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said “Declining to provide vital information to [the Legislature] only deepens Higher Education suspicions.”

The agenda for the meeting can be found online.

Jordan Rudner