UT regents ask AG to ignore Hall’s request for information

By Matthew Watkins
The Texas Tribune
Originally published May 4, 2015

In the latest bit of infighting among the governing board of the University of Texas System, the Board of Regents on Monday asked the state attorney general to ignore one of its member’s request for help accessing confidential student information.

The board approved a letter saying the regent, Wallace Hall, doesn’t have a right to “unfettered” information from the system. The letter also says that Hall doesn’t have a right to ask Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the issue.

The regents voted 8-0 to send the letter to Paxton. Even Hall’s usual allies on the board, Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich, voted in favor of it. Hall abstained from voting.

Regents have been debating Hall’s access to student information for weeks. The issue centers on a report released in February that found that UT-Austin President Bill Powers’ office intervened in the admissions of 73 students who were accepted into the school when they otherwise might not have been. Some of those students, the report said, had political connections.

But Hall’s request also follows years of power struggles and divisiveness among the regents. Hall has long been a critic of Powers, and his requests for information about the university president’s activities have long been controversial. UT-Austin officials have estimated that Hall has requested hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, taking up countless staff hours. A legislative committee considered impeaching him, but decided to censure him instead. And a grand jury considered bringing criminal charges against him, but didn’t.

Hall has continued to say that he is working for the good of the university. He has harshly criticized UT-Austin’s admissions policies, and publicly called for the people who used their influence to get students into school to be exposed. The report doesn’t list any names of influencers. It’s unclear whether the report’s supporting documents have that information.

Cranberg said a regent shouldn’t have “completely unfettered” access to data and documents, especially if releasing that information violates federal student privacy laws.

“But beyond that I feel it is important to express the need for independent regents to have a capacity to ask hard questions, oftentimes when the majority of the board feels uncomfortable,” he said.

Cranberg said he doesn’t think the letter removes that ability; rather, he said, it merely places some limits on what regents can request.

Soon after the admissions report was made public, Hall requested those supporting documents, and regents called a special meeting to consider whether to give them to him. At the meeting, Chancellor William McRaven advocated against complying with the request, saying he had declared the admissions inquiry formally closed and that Hall’s request for more information appeared to be reopening it. Reopening the investigation would represent an usurpation of McRaven’s power, the chancellor said.

Regents voted 6-3 to deny Hall’s request, but under board policy, only two votes are needed to approve a regent’s request for information. Hall left the special meeting expecting that he’d be able to sit down and review the documents.

That quickly changed. On April 13, McRaven emailed Hall, saying that his request “goes well beyond any reasonable desire to be better informed as a regent.”

Hall responded a week later by sending a letter seeking an opinion from the attorney general’s office. The letter, which was written by his lawyer, Bill Aleshire, argued that members of state oversight boards should have “unfettered” access to the records of the agencies they oversee. And Aleshire said that system employees work for the regents, so McRaven can’t deny a request that was approved under board policy.

But the letter sent Monday said that Hall shouldn’t have sent such a letter — only the entire board may do so. The letter also said Hall should have hired private counsel to represent him in his official capacity. As a result, Paxton shouldn’t respond to Hall’s questions, the letter said.

Regents authorized the letter during a closed-door meeting Monday morning. The board discussed the issue for two hours. Only Cranberg publicly explained his support for the letter. No other system officials commented during or after the vote.