Lawmakers reacted positively to the University of Texas System regents' unanimous vote on Thursday to turn over requested documents to legislators, but they also indicated that tensions between the system and the Capitol have not been laid to rest.
Board Chairman Gene Powell had previously asked Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on whether the board had to turn over all records lawmakers had requested, a move that angered many elected officials.
State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, said in a statement that the regents' "wise decision" to release the records will help legislators "exercise our oversight function and also promote greater confidence in the work of the UT Board of Regents."
But that's not the end of the line. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said, "To be clear, this isn't the end of this process, nor does it complete all of the board's responsibilities to legislators and to Texans. But I do hope it's a healthy, positive start."
The regents also voted to ask the attorney general to conduct a review of a controversial and now-defunct forgivable loan program run by the University of Texas Law School Foundation. After the regents decided to set aside a previous internal review of the program and seek an external review, a majority of Texas senators encouraged them to save money on the "unnecessary" effort by utilizing the attorney general's office.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she was pleased with the vote, but added that she thought the attorney general's outside investigation would be "fruitless because they’ve already looked at the law school foundation time and time and time again."
Zaffirini has filed a large information request with the system but said she has received very few responsive materials so far. She said she was still wary of the regents' willingness to provide documents. "My understanding is that some of the regents have hired private attorneys and they are now claiming attorney-client privilege," she said.
"I hate to sound trite," she added, "but seeing is believing and actions speak louder than words."
Other legislative leaders expressed similar sentiments.
House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said that Thursday's votes were "two steps in the right direction." But he added, "We still have a ways to go."
"It certainly doesn’t make anything any worse," Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said of the regents' votes. "They did what should be done. It’s what we expected to be done."
Branch and Seliger had submitted a comprehensive records request of the system as the co-chairs the Legislature's Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency. Branch said that he looked forward to receiving those records with "deliberate speed" so that the committee could get to work, noting that the board's delay had set them back.
Other legislative initiatives inspired by the tension surrounding the UT System appear to be proceeding. Hours after the regents voted, Seliger passed a bill out of the Senate that would add temporary voting restrictions and training requirements for new regents. It received little discussion or opposition.
Still, Seliger said he was "optimistic" about the signal sent by the regents on Thursday. "These are certainly capable people," he said. "We expect them to do the right thing. Now, we expect them to reduce tensions and turmoil at the university."
Zaffirini put the blame for the controversy entirely on "the actions of some regents."
"They need to act on good faith," she said. "And they need to understand, if they don’t already, that we are relentless in our pursuit of the truth."
That may be just fine with Powell, who said he doesn't "take any umbrage" with the Legislature "challenging" or "chastising" the board.
"I’m an athlete," he said. "I was always challenged. Challenged every day. I don’t find challenges and people challenging me to be a bad thing. I think it’s a thing that makes you better."
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