Political, economic climates affect regent-legislator relations, officials say

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Conflicts between members of the UT System Board of Regents and the Texas Legislature are nothing new to the two bodies, but their relationship changes with differing political and economic climates, according to current and former members of each entity.

Former UT System Chancellor Hans Mark, who served from 1984 to 1992, said legislators did not involve themselves in the board’s affairs during his tenure, which he attributes to a lack of apparent partisanship on the board, a different economic climate and conflicts among regents over relatively minor topics.

“I can say certainly during my time, nothing was as serious as it is today,” Mark said.

Mark said the closest parallel to this session’s events, which stem from perceived efforts by regents to oust President William Powers Jr., is the board’s dismissal of President Homer Rainey in 1944. Regents fired Rainey when he refused to remove economics professors accused of teaching communist theories.

“That was a much tenser period because none of us really expected that the Soviet Union would be an enemy just a few years after the end of World War II,” Mark said. “Hell, I was around, I didn’t expect it.”

A bill that attempts to limit regents’ power over individual institutions passed the Texas Senate 29-2 on Thursday. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, authored the bill and said he hopes his bill along with the board’s decisions last week — to disclose information requested by legislators and to pursue an investigation of the UT Law School Foundation through the Texas Attorney General’s office — will bring the conflict to a close. 

Seliger said he spoke to a regent, whom he declined to name, at a social event and pointed out to the regent that they had not spoken to each other since the Senate confirmed the regent’s appointment.

“I’d like to go back to a system where regents never heard from legislators except when it comes to budgetary issues,” Seliger said.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the current conflict between legislators and regents is a more specific and direct conflict than previous ones.

“Part of the reason I think that’s happened is [that] the regents have not been clear about why they’re doing certain things,” Watson said. “They’ve created, by their lack of clarity, a context in which certain things get assumed to be negative.”

Former board Chairman Charles Miller, who served from 2001 to 2004, said tension arose during the debate to deregulate tuition in 2003, which allowed the System to set its own tuition.

Miller said the current conflict between regents and legislators is more focused on personality than policy disputes, which legislators should acknowledge when proposing policies that could affect governance structure.

“I don’t think there’s a problem at all with governance structures in Texas,” Miller said. “What we have today is a more political and personal fight. When you respond to those kinds of conflicts by trying to change the structure, that’s a mistake.”