On Tuesday of last week, Student Government passed a joint resolution with the Senate of College Councils approving a vote of “no confidence” against Regent Wallace Hall, who is currently under investigation by the House Transparency Committee for abusing his powers as a regent. The resolution proclaimed to pass no judgement on Hall’s guilt in “whatever actions and crimes are alleged against him." Ultimately, it is little more than a student government assembly-approved proclamation that students, too, are fed up with Hall’s behavior.
But the resolution is yet another indicator that the long-simmering tensions between the Board of Regents and UT-Austin are now being kept on the burner by the actions of a single man: Hall himself. If that’s the case, we’d just as soon that Hall resign and take the drama with him, though given his past behavior, we’d expect nothing less than his stubbornly standing his ground to the detriment of the entire UT System.
Initially, the conflict over Hall’s massive open records requests was viewed as an extension of the board and System’s alleged attempt to oust President William Powers Jr. In response, the legislature, particularly Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, called for articles of impeachment to be brought against Hall. But as the initial exploratory investigation of the Committee has progressed, the idea of a board and System united in conflict with UT-Austin and Powers appears to be cracking.
Last month, the committee heard from Barry Burgdorf, previously a UT System vice chancellor and general counsel. Burgdorf testified to conflict between the board and the System, particularly where Chairman Powell’s hands-off style of leadership, which gave Hall free range to pursue individual investigation, was concerned. Burgdorf also spoke of Hall’s treatment of System staff, which he characterized as “like hired help.”
More recently, the committee also heard from current UT System general counsel Dan Sharphorn, who said that he was “sympathetic” to the enormous workload Hall’s requests had caused among UT-Austin employees and that he thought that some of Hall’s requests were unreasonable.
The Board of Regents itself seems to be shifting toward a similar stance. Testimony from Francie Frederick, legal counsel to the board, seemed to mirror that of Sharphorn, purporting that a regent needed a “legitimate educational purpose” to request FERPA-protected documents, as Hall has done.
Frederick said she thought Hall, while a “principled man” who was “good at heart,” did not have such a legitimate educational purpose. She added that “distractions over the last several years are beginning to detract from the best interests of the UT System.”
The Daily Texan’s interview with Student Regent Nash Horne — while otherwise filled with so much dodging and weaving that Horne is rumored to be considering a bid for UT’s next star kick returner — seems to confirm this sentiment. In an otherwise vacuous set of answers, Horne called the impeachment hearings a “great thing,” and stated that document requests have taken valuable resources and focus away from other campuses in the UT System.
In large part, the conflict at the board level now seems to center on Hall and his apparently dwindling faction on the board, headed by, or perhaps composed exclusively of, Regents Alex Cranburg and Brenda Pejovich, who abstained from a recent vote to waive attorney-client privilege claims, a move itself designed to communicate to the committee that the rest of the board, as well as the System, was willing to cooperate.
Some credit for this shift is probably due to a changing of the guard at the head of the board, as the newly-elected Chairman Paul Foster appears to have about-faced on his tie-breaking vote to restart the Law School Foundation investigation that kicked off this most recent mess. Foster has also outlined a plan to revamp the board’s way of conducting investigations, pointedly noting a need to look into “whether the information sought [in an investigation] is necessary and likely to be beneficial to the discharge of a board member’s duties.”
Of course, this picture of Hall as the last man standing might change if his December testimony brings with it the often-rumored, but somewhat less frequently-presented, “smoking gun” against Powers, UT-Austin, the legislature, and whatever Hall feels like “investigating” that day. And the displeasure voiced by members of the Committee at the System’s request to require subpoenas for witnesses suggests that both the System and the board may have a difficult road ahead of them convincing the committee that they don’t want to be lumped into the same basket as Hall.
But all things considered, we’re glad to see that Hall’s now got his own basket, in the minds of not just the regents, but UT students as well. Of course, we know he won’t resign — putting a stop to this argument before it manages to monopolize the higher education conversation for three whole years would be all too kind — but it’s nice to see that he may not take the whole relationship between UT-Austin and its Board of Regents down with him.