By Ross Ramsey
The Texas Tribune
Originally published May 16, 2014
This episode of the Wallace Hall saga begins with state lawmakers holding a transparency meeting in private.
Some groups objecting to that opacity are financed by donors they will not reveal, some of whom aim, as Hall does, to change the way things are done in higher education in Texas.
And it could very well end with a stage, a spotlight and an audience for a government appointee who has been trying to bring attention to the practices of the state’s most prestigious public university.
Hall, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, has been making detailed and persistent inquiries into the operations of the University of Texas in Austin, poking at its president, Bill Powers, and provoking an angry stampede from Longhorn Nation — the alumni and other supporters of the university.
University supporters think Hall is a pest. Hall’s patrons, a group that could very well include the governor who appointed him, think he is a tenacious and, if not exactly charming, useful spur for some changes they would like to see in higher education.
The Texas House is moving toward impeachment. After that closed meeting this week, an eight-member committee voted, 7-1, that there were grounds to do so. They will meet again next week to talk about drafting articles of impeachment, which, if approved, could be delivered to the full House for consideration. Even some of his fellow regents are now asking for his resignation.
Though that sounds awful for Hall, its could bring attention to his complaints about UT-Austin in particular and higher education in general. All he stands to lose is a nonpaying, appointed job. Instead of defending his digging, he might get a chance to reveal what he dug up.
An impeachment could turn Hall from an appointee who overstepped his authority and tried to micromanage his charge — a story line that has predominated so far — into an appointee who encountered serious resistance in his efforts to oversee an institution he was appointed to help oversee.
It depends on what you find more offensive: politically appointed micromanagers or insulated academics and bureaucrats.
Only 13 percent of the money for UT-Austin came from the state’s general fund in 2013-14, down from 47 percent 30 years earlier, according to the university. Another 9 percent comes from the state endowment set up to sustain UT-Austin and other schools, down from 12 percent. Tuition and fees account for 24 percent, up from 5 percent. The remaining 54 percent comes from research grants, gifts and the like, up from 36 percent three decades ago.
Even though students and taxpayers cover less than half of its costs, it is still a huge state institution, still run by appointees named by the governor and approved by the State Senate, still accountable to legislators who write the budgets and make the laws. It is not all about cost, and this is where the private student records come into play: Hall has been trying to find out if political influence plays a part in who gets through UT-Austin’s stringent admissions and who does not.
He is not talking about the details, but his direction is evident in a statement he made through his lawyers after this week’s impeachment vote: “My efforts as a regent are to serve the interests of our great educational institutions, the students, faculty and staff who make them great, and the taxpayers who fund them, not to appease a privileged class who abuse them.”
Maybe it is all malarkey, and Hall is a crank amassing records and pushing people around just because he can. The forces gathering against him seem to think so, and their complaints are about what he has done in pursuit of his targets. At the end, maybe in the Senate if and when this all comes to an impeachment trial, he will be able to change the topic to the fruits of his inquiries. Perhaps he found something interesting.
Some believe he blundered through the fence that separates management and meddling. But in Hall’s version of this odyssey, he and the other regents were hired to keep an eye on the livestock, whether the cows like it or not.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.