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Powers testifies before House transparency committee

Legislators from the House Select Transparency Committee for State Agency Operations met at the Texas state capitol today to continue its investigation looking into the grounds for impeachment of University of Texas System regent Wallace Hall Jr.
photo courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin

Less than a week after managing to keep his future afloat at The University of Texas at Austin, President William J. Powers stood in front of a Texas House transparency committee to answer questions regarding the actions of University of Texas System regent Wallace Hall Jr.

Today’s meeting was the first of the last two meetings scheduled by the Select Committee for Transparency in State Agency Operations, the second scheduled for Dec. 19. In addition to Powers, the select committee also received testimonies from two former regents; H. Scott Caven Jr. and John Barnhill, and current UT System Chancellor Francis G. Cigarroa.

Caven, who formerly served as the chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, shared his view that it was “inappropriate” for an individual regent to act on his or her own accord without first sharing the mission of his actions to the rest of the board. Barnhill, who testified alongside Caven, said he supported this view.

Rusty Hardin, appointed counsel to the transparency committee, also asked the former regents how they would have viewed a regent requesting “voluminous” open records requests for his or her own interests and concerns.

“I would call it disruptive,” Barnhill answered. “In our case, we made every effort to hear people’s views on the board, but then tried to go one direction.”

Both Barnhill and Caven told the committee that they had not, during their tenure, dealt with regents requesting individual open records requests to employees of the UT System.

On Oct. 22, UT’s chief financial officer Kevin Hegarty testified to the board that Hall had made multiple open records requests, which added up to 800,000 documents, that strained the university’s resources. Hegarty also testified that the contents of some of these documents, in regards to Hall’s request for law student’s LSAT exam scores, could have threatened student privacy.

Caven, when asked by the committee's co-chair Carol Alvarado D-Houston about how he, as chairman, would have reacted to a regent discussing the potential employment of a new head coach at a university in the system without consulting the president of the said university, said he would ask the specific regent to “cease and desist” his actions, and said he would “extend” to that regent that an appropriate meeting be called, should the concern be “legitimate.”

“I think there is a charge to [the board] to determine the direction of the system,” Caven said.

Cigarroa, who testified after Barnhill and Caven, answered questions from the committee in regards to the specific actions of Hall as well as the context in which his actions took place.

“I would say over the past year, there has been distractions in the sense that there have been certainly voluminous requests predominantly focused on a specific campus,” Cigarroa said.

In reaction to Hall’s recent “massive” amount of information requests, Cigarroa said Chairman Paul L. Foster of the UT system board of regents has made new recommendations to policy regarding open records requests, and said he was “supportive” of the chairman’s efforts to “streamline” the process.

Cigarroa, who spent over three hours on the stand, also answered a line of questions in regards to conversations that took place with Hall over the concerns about the president of the system’s flagship university.

Cigarroa said he had, in fact, been approached by Hall, but only within the context of Hall’s concern over unfair compensations made by administrators at UT’s law school as well as the law school’s admission policies.

Barry Burgdorf, who was the system's general counsel and vice chancellor until May 2013, testified in October in front of the House committee and said several regents had a "clear intent" to remove Powers from his office.

On Aug. 15, Stephen Ryan, one of the legal counsels representing Hall, wrote a letter to the co-chairs of the House committee accusing UT's law school of "secret favoritism" on two separate accounts.

One of the two accounts of "secret favoritism," according to Ryan, involved the child of an unnamed Texas state legislator who had written a letter of recommendation for their son or daughter after learning that his or her LSAT scores were not up to the law school's acceptance standards. According to Ryan, Hall found that the legislator's son or daughter was admitted to the school without retaking the LSAT exam, and accused the school's admission policies of having "political influence."

“When a regent and others are starting to question the integrity of an admissions process of an institution of the system, I would not be doing my job if I did not take that seriously,” Cigarroa said.

Powers, who was the last to testify, said the controversy surrounding his employment is “on top of” a very difficult financial situation affecting the system after the recent recession.
“This particular controversy or set of events surrounding UT Austin has been a tremendous distraction and hindrance to moving the university ahead,” Powers said.

The Horn reported Dec. 13 that regents, at the recommendation of Cigarroa, chose to take no action against the employment of Powers, easing some of the tension between the system and the university.

Powers said one negative effect has been the extent that the controversy has distracted the university and the system from tackling these financial issues. Another effect, Powers added, was the impact the controversy had in the UT’s recruitment of faculty and staff as well as student enrollment.

Powers also said that the reputation of the school as one of the best teaching and research schools in the nation had been hurt by the events, in light of the academic community questioning the future of the institution along with its president.

Powers also discussed his views on the “Seven Solutions” to higher education, which was supported by Governor Perry, saying that one of the solutions affecting research funding at public institutions was not in line with the philosophies of a major research institutions like UT.

In addition, Powers confirmed that Hall had not consulted him or UT’s athletic director of his discussions with Alabama head football coach Nick Saban’s agent. Powers said that he had not heard news of the event until a member of his staff had addressed the issue to him. Powers also added that he and Hall had not had a conversation for six months, aside from shaking hands and saying, “hello” at regent meetings.

Before listening to the invited testimonies, the co-chairs of the select committee first called attention to Hall’s decision of declining to testify during today’s scheduled hearings. Rep. Dan Flynn R-Caton, one of the co-chairs of the committee, said Hall’s refusal felt like a “slap in the face,” adding that his refusal shows “no regard” for the actions of the committee.

“The letters to the committee by [Hall’s] lawyer have been offensive to this committee, and quite frankly ... to the entire Texas house of representatives,” Flynn said.

Hall, whose actions have been under investigation by the transparency committee since September 2013, was invited by the co-chairs of the committee to give voluntary testimony. On Dec. 17, a week after the invitation letter was issued, The Texas Tribune reported that Allan Van Fleet, Hall’s lawyer, sent a letter to the co-chairs of the committee on behalf of his client on Dec. 16 outlining his client’s reasons for declining the committee’s invitation.

“Regent Hall informed the Transparency Committee on Dec. 4 that he will make every effort to respond to the Committee’s requests, provided that his testimony be covered by the same protections of a subpoena that have been granted to every other witness,” Van Fleet wrote.

Van Fleet also said his client had requested a two weeks’ notice before appearing before the committee, a request that, according to Alvarado, was not warranted by past committee hearings.

“I believe [Hall] could have provided this committee with matchless testimony that would have helped us set the record straight,” Alvarado said as she expressed her disappointment over Hall’s decision to not testify.

At the end of the meeting, Flynn informed both Cigarroa and Powers that the committee will be following up with the two administrators with questions in regards to today’s hearing.

After the meeting Hardin spoke briefly to The Horn about his thoughts on today’s hearings, saying that today’s testimonies were “positive” for the UT community.

“I think we saw examples of what regents really should be like from the two men that testified. We saw the chancellor and the president both who’ve had some differences but made it very clear that they’re going to work together and get ready to move forward,” Hardin said. “It also showed how destructive certain conduct can be when somebody appoints himself the inspector general, and goes out and just seeks to try to find anything and everything bad that he can.”

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