Speaker Joe Straus criticizes Board of Regents, admissions investigation at Tribune Festival

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Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, discussed controversies regarding the UT System Board of Regents and 2015 legislative session at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday.

Held on campus at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, the discussion was moderated by Ross Ramsey, executive editor at The Texas Tribune, who posed a wide range of questions, opening with the upcoming 2015 legislative session.

“Why do you still want this job?” Ramsey said.

Straus, who is facing a challenge for the speakership from Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, said he does not think his work is done.

“We have a lot of work still ahead of us,” Straus said. “This is my fourth election as speaker. It will be the fourth, very different House of Representatives than the first time I was elected as speaker.”

According to Straus, the relationship between Republicans and Democrats in the House is vital to the legislature's success.

“I try to help manage the House to set an example that is unlike Washington, D.C.,” Straus said. “I don’t worry about politics too much, as long as we get our job done.”

Ramsey posed a series of questions about the current relationship between the Board of Regents and the Texas Legislature. Straus said he thinks there is a disproportionate focus on the goings on at UT.

“I’m sick of [UT] being the only campus in the state of Texas that gets this much attention,” Straus said. “It’s crazy. It’s too much focus on UT-Austin, too much turmoil here. It all ties back, I believe, to the disfunction of the Board of Regents.”

In 2013, Straus authorized the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations to open an investigation into Regent Wallace Hall. In August, the committee censured Hall.

Also in August, the UT System hired a risk mitigation response firm to conduct an external investigation into UT’s admissions process after questions where raised about whether letters of recommendations sent directly to President Powers from state legislators or other influential individuals had any impact on admissions decisions. The System previously conducted its own investigation and found no structured system of wrongdoing.

Straus said he does not have a problem writing college recommendation letters for college applicants.

“I’m happy to do it, but very clearly there’s no expectation that [the student] will get in because I write a letter,” Straus said. "I don’t think another investigation is necessary. People write letters. Every letter I write I expect to see it on the front page of the newspaper – I’m not embarrassed about it.”

Straus said he is hopeful the turmoil on the board is coming to an end.

“It think it’s a manufactured issue,” Straus said. “You have to have some faith and confidence in your administrators...I think it’s an excellent thing that [Admiral William McRaven] is coming in and I have very high expectations for everyone. Our new governor will be making some appointments to the board. I think we’re, hopefully, about to work our way through this.”

Government junior Shalaka Joshi said she was intrigued by Straus’ discussion of the current state of the regents.

“His thoughts on what’s happening at UT and with the Board of Regents were interesting, and I agreed with him when he talked about how the process needs to be depoliticized and that the quality of the University should be the most important thing,” Joshi said.