By Matthew Watkins
The Texas Tribune
Originally published June 23, 2015
In an effort to gain access to confidential student information, University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall has taken the unusual step of suing the chancellor of the system he oversees.
Hall claims in the suit that Chancellor William McRaven wrongly denied Hall access to the records, which Hall says are necessary to fulfill his oversight role as a regent. He couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday night.
In a statement, the system denied that claim, saying students’ academic records are protected by federal law.
“Chancellor McRaven believes that a regent’s access to information is not above the law,” the statement said.
The suit is a further escalation of a years-long conflict between Hall and the leadership of UT-Austin. He wants access to student records that were used to compile a report by Kroll Associates, which found that former UT-Austin President Bill Powers and other administrators over several years had helped several dozen students gain admittance into the school over the objections of the admissions office.
Some of those students had powerful connections, the report said. But the report didn’t say who those students were or who helped them into school.
Hall hasn’t said why he wants the records, but he and McRaven have been at loggerheads for months over whether he can see them. Hall has Attorney General Ken Paxton on his side, but McRaven has resisted, saying Hall wants to re-open an investigation that McRaven has already declared closed.
Hall first asked for the documents on March 6 and, due to a special board policy at the time, only needed two regents to sign off on the request. The board called a special meeting in early April, and three of the nine regents voted in Hall’s favor.
McRaven resisted, however, saying that giving up the records would violate student privacy laws. Hall needed an “educational purpose” in accessing them, and McRaven said he didn’t see one.
The attorney general disagrees. He said in a letter last month that regents shouldn’t be denied that kind of information. Earlier this month, he said the system was violating the law by withholding it. Paxton granted Hall permission to hire a lawyer at the state’s expense to pursue the records, though McRaven has indicated that the system doesn’t plan to pay.
The board of regents has since changed its rules for releasing information. Now, a majority of the board must approve regents’ information requests. Paxton has said that rule violates the law, too.
The system said in its statement that Hall has been provided some of the information he has requested. McRaven was right to deny the rest, the statement said.
“When federal or state law makes confidential information that relates to a specific individual, whether it is private health information or an individual student’s protected information, it is our duty to ensure that we strictly comply with those confidentiality requirements,” McRaven said in the statement. “I regret that Regent Hall believes the lawsuit is necessary or appropriate, but I am confident that my actions are in compliance not only with what the law requires, but also with what is in the best interest of our students, patients and employees across the UT System.”
It was unclear Tuesday night how the case will proceed, and who will be paying whose legal fees. Paxton is the top legal representative of the state, and his office is often called to represent state agencies in cases like this. Paxton has already publicly taken Hall’s side, however. And Paxton said in his letter this month that he would consider a UT System request for outside counsel if it was made.