Regent Paul Foster

The UT System offices on July 11, 2013. 


The Daily Texan file photo | William Crites-Krumm 

Photo Credit: William Crites-Krumm | Daily Texan Staff

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.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Ernest Aliseda and Jeff Hildebrand to the Board of Regents in February, and he reappointed Paul Foster. The appointees have to wait till they are confirmed by the senate before they can begin serving.

The Senate Nominations Committee unanimously approved three nominees to the UT System Board of Regents Tuesday after putting them on the chopping block just one day ago and interrogating them about how they felt about UT-Austin President William Powers Jr.

McAllen Judge Ernest Aliseda, energy CEO Jeffrey Hildebrand and current UT Regent Paul Foster need to receive a two-thirds majority vote from the full Texas Senate before they are official regents.

Committee members vetted the nominees for four hours Monday, which officials said is the longest time spent considering nominees this session.

If they are approved, the three regents will play an important role in the ongoing power struggle between the board and Powers. All nominees were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, who has clashed with Powers on tuition prices and other matters.

Their terms would expire Feb. 1, 2019.

The board has been accused of micromanaging UT and plotting to force Powers out of office. Senators on Monday warned the nominees against planning to fire Powers or making his life difficult to try to force him to resign.

“I believe that any plan to fire Bill Powers, any plan to arrange an exit, graceful or otherwise, any plan to force him to resign, any plan to make him so miserable that he or his wife should decide he should resign, would be detrimental to the University of Texas, to our state,” said Sen. Juddith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

The three nominees denied any plan to oust Powers. Hildebrand said he was an independent thinker and would not have accepted the nomination if he was told he had to vote in a certain way.

Foster said although Powers was stubborn and difficult to work with, the board has never had any conversations on forcing him out. However, Foster said the board has discussed Powers voluntarily resigning at his own time.

“There is no conspiracy effort [to fire Powers] or hidden agenda that I’m aware of,” Foster said.

All nominees said they would work to fix the rift between Powers and the board if approved.

Earlier:

Members of the Senate Committee of Nominations put three nominees for the UT System Board on Regents on the spot Monday for four hours and hammered them with questions on the job security of UT President William Powers Jr.

Senators spent the majority of the meeting interrogating current UT Regent Paul Foster, who was reappointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, on whether there was any board plan to fire Powers or force him out of office. Legislators also expressed frustration at the public scandal between board and Powers and demanded regents move on.

All university regents are appointed by Perry and must be confirmed by the Senate. Nominations committee chairman Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said he expected to have a decision made by late Monday or Tuesday.

Foster acknowledged there was a rift between Powers and the board, and even said the regents – albeit informally - spoke about him voluntarily resigning.

“There have been discussions about him transitioning out at some point when he’s ready on his terms, not on anything else,” Foster said.

He said the board has never had any conversations on forcing Powers out.

Legislators asked nominees Ernest Aliseda and Jeffrey Hildebrand if they were brought in to join in the witchhunt against Powers. Both said they did not have any plans to fire the UT president.

All three nominees have donated to Perry over the years. Aliseda currently has two kids at UT-Austin and is a graduate of Texas A&M University. He is the managing attorney for the Loya Insurance Group and acts as a municipal judge for the city of McAllen.

Hildebrand graduated from UT-Austin and is the CEO of Hilcorp Energy Co. Foster has been on the board since 2007 and is the current vice chairman. If approved, they would serve until Feb. 1, 2019.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Juddith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, were some on the most outspoken members in Monday’s cross-examination. Watson asked Foster about an email sent last year by UT Regent Alex Cranberg, which criticizes Powers.

“I actually expect (Powers) to hold out an olive branch if he is smart and wants to accomplish something,” Cranberg said in the email. “I’m idealistic and keep forgetting that his agenda is egotistical, to be a hero figure and not a doer.”

Zaffirini praised Powers and said she believes there is an ongoing effort by the regents to fire Powers or force him to resign. She warned the regents against this, saying such a move would have a negative impact on UT’s reputation and on the state of Texas. 

“Do you understand that Bill Powers, the president of UT-Austin, is not only respected and admired, but I would dare say loved by members of legislature?” Zaffirini asked the nominees.

“If Bill Powers were fired, all hell would break loose,” Zaffirini said.

Foster said every time some issue with Powers comes up, there is a very organized campaign of public outcry, including a flood of phone calls and media coverage, which frustrates the regents. However, Foster said he is willing to move past the drama and work with Powers.  

Nominations Committee Chairman Hegar closed the meeting and urged the nominees to focus on the students and the UT System, not on the scandal between the board and Powers.

“Move beyond the controversy because I can tell you as a legislator, I’m tired of hearing about this issue,” Hegar said.

Contact Jody Serrano at jserrano@utexas.edu or follow her on Twitter @jodyserrano.