Judge to rule on Wallace Hall’s suit for documents next week

By Bobby Blanchard
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Dec. 10, 2015

AUSTIN — The judge presiding over UT Regent Wallace Hall’s lawsuit said in court on Thursday he would issue a ruling next week on whether University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall has the right to records he requested from the system months ago.

Hall wants records underlying an independent report that found several dozen underqualified students were admitted to UT-Austin with the help of connections from big named donors, lawmakers and other powerful figures.

Chancellor William McRaven and the UT System was willing to give Hall the records with confidential student records redacted. Hall, who has said he needs the records to perform his “fiduciary duties” as a regent, wanted the records underacted. He said with redactions, the records have been rendered “meaningless.”

A hearing going all day Wednesday and part of the day Thursday in the lawsuit Hall filed this year focused on whether Hall has the right to bring the suit against McRaven in the first place and if the UT System can keep confidential student information from a member of its board of regents.

Lawyers representing Hall and McRaven grilled witnesses for hours, often arguing over the intricacies of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal law that aims to protect student privacy.

Representing McRaven, attorney Rick Milvenan argued that the state court could not interfere in internal governance issues of the UT System Board of Regents.

“The court can’t sit as an umpire to second guess the board,” Milvenan said.

But even if Hall had the right to brought the suit, UT System General Counsel Dan Sharphorn, said McRaven and the UT System had a duty to keep confidential student information from the regent unless he could prove there was an educational purpose for the records.

“I do everything I can to follow orders and follow the law,” McRaven testified. “I felt that there was a law and that there was a line we should not overstep – and that line was” the privacy law.

McRaven and Sharphorn said that they considered Hall’s request for all the records an attempt to reopen the investigations into UT-Austin’s admissions process. In order to reopen the investigation, McRaven said the majority of the board of regents would have to vote to do so.

While testifying in court on Wednesday and Thursday, Hall said Wednesday he needs the documents because of concerns he has about the potential of other holes in UT’s admissions process.

“Sometimes you need to look at confidential information to connect the dots and figure out what’s taking place,” Hall said. “I am not going to be a willing dupe…I’ll keep asking questions if I don’t get good answers.”

The hearing also highlighted the many fights between Hall and UT-Austin in recent years — going as far back as when Hall first was appointed to the UT System board by former Gov. Rick Perry. Under questioning from McRaven’s lawyer, Hall said he disagreed with the characterization that he spent “considerable energy” trying to get former UT-Austin President Bill Powers fired.

During closing arguments, the judge expressed skepticism that Hall needed to see the student records from “years ago” in order to “articulate issues in the new admissions policies.” But he also seemed doubtful of the UT System’s argument that Hall didn’t have a right to bring the case.

Judge Scott Jenkins, who is presiding over the case, said he will issue his ruling sometime mid next week. He acknowledged that whatever he ruled, it will likely be appealed.