Two UT regents accuse fellow regent of abusing power

Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Austin American-Statesman
Originally published on June 12, 2013

Continuing demands by a University of Texas System regent for records from the Austin campus amount to an “abuse of power,” according to two fellow regents.

Regents R. Steven Hicks and Robert Stillwell charged in emails this week that the actions of Regent Wallace Hall Jr. are intended to discredit the leadership of UT-Austin.

The emails, copies of which were obtained by the American-Statesman, signal stepped-up internal strife on what is arguably the most prestigious of hundreds of boards and commissions in state government. The UT System Board of Regents oversees 15 academic and health campuses, 216,000 students, a $14 billion operating budget and about $30 billion in higher education endowments and other funds.

Hall is seeking emails and other records involving UT-Austin President Bill Powers, Powers’ deputy Nancy Brazzil, the School of Law, the Law School Foundation, current and former elected officials, leaders of a coalition formed to defend UT-Austin and regents.

Hall previously obtained dozens of boxes of open-records materials dating back more than two years from the Austin campus.

Hicks said in an email to regents Chairman Gene Powell and other regents that Hall’s actions constitute “an abuse of power and are clearly targeted to discredit the leadership of our flagship institution. Is there any action that you as Chairman can take to put a stop to this witch hunt? It reflects poorly on the Board as a whole and might lead to more actions to limit our authority in the future.”

Powell said he has been assured by the board’s general counsel that Hall’s requests for records do not violate any law or policy.

Hall, in a statement first reported by the Texas Tribune, said: “This is the first I’ve heard of Regent Hicks’ email, but it is inconceivable to me how a request for transparency for legitimate board purposes is an abuse of power.”

Stillwell said in an email to fellow regents that he endorses Hicks’ views.

“In our context, and going back to the beginnings of this whole mess, how ‘transparent’ was dropping Rick O’Donnell in our midst to carry out his long-planned agenda?” Stillwell wrote. “That seemed pretty sneaky at the time, at least to me.”

Stillwell was referring to Powell’s surprise hiring in 2011 of a special adviser to the regents who put together an exhaustive list of every faculty member’s compensation, teaching load and other matters in a much-criticized effort to assess faculty productivity.

Powers was outspoken in asserting that the information took no account of the quality of teaching and research.

State lawmakers became so frustrated with what they called micromanagement of UT-Austin and Powers by some regents that they approved legislation last month that would scale back some of the authority of the state’s 11 boards of regents. For example, a board could not fire a campus president unless the system’s chancellor had recommended doing so.

Sunday is the last day that Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed all of the state’s regents, can sign Senate Bill 15, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

The state attorney general’s office is investigating the Law School and the foundation following disclosure of a since-discontinued program of forgivable loans to faculty members. The UT board had voted to hire an outside firm to conduct the investigation but agreed under pressure from lawmakers to ask Attorney General Greg Abbott instead.