UT System Board Chairman to Recommend Policy Changes

Regent Paul Foster at the University of Texas System Board of Regents meeting Aug. 22, 2013.
Regent Paul Foster at the University of Texas System Board of Regents meeting Aug. 22, 2013.

After legislative hearings calling into question the process by which the University of Texas System has allowed regents to obtain information about its flagship university, the board's chairman, Paul Foster, announced on Friday that he intends to recommend new policy changes related to that process.

"Over the course of events and debates during the last legislative session and in the weeks since," Foster said during a special board meeting on Friday, "there has been a focus on best practices for state governing boards. In light of this, I believe today is the right time to begin a new discussion on the best ways this board should operate going forward."

Foster said he expects to make at least three recommendations at the board's next meeting in November. He said he would work with Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, the board's vice chairmen and the system staff to prepare them.

They will probably include, he said, calling for a new process to review requests for information that involves a determination "concerning whether the information sought is necessary and likely to be beneficial to the discharge of a board member's duties."

Additionally, Foster expects to recommend a modification to the system's communication strategy so that all media contact and public statements are coordinated in advance and routed through the system's external relations office. The chairman and chancellor will be recognized as the official spokespeople for the system.

 

Foster also indicated that he intends to initiate a discussion about "the appropriateness and feasibility" of utilizing system-provided email addresses for regents to use when conducting system business.

The announcement comes as the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations is investigating whether to impeach Regent Wallace Hall, whose requests for information from the University of Texas at Austin since his 2011 appointment have yielded about 800,000 documents. Some lawmakers have accused Hall of abusing his authority and being on a "witch hunt" to oust UT-Austin President Bill Powers. A lawyer for Hall has said his client has been driven to investigate the operations at UT-Austin because of misgivings about the influence of politicians on the admissions process, among other reasons.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the committee heard from officials who oversee open records requests at the university as well as the UT System's general counsel. Questions were raised about the security of private information contained within responses to Hall's requests, and his atypical practice of filing open records requests as a private citizen in addition to asking for them in his capacity as a regent was scrutinized.

Lawmakers also wondered why regents frequently conduct system business via their personal emails rather than using emails provided by the system.

Barry Burgdorf, the system's former general counsel, said previous board Chairman Gene Powell's hands-off approach regarding regents had led to dramatic changes in the system's internal culture.

Foster, who became chairman this year and indicated a desire to calm tensions, appears poised to take adopt a different strategy. "I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about how we can fully discharge our responsibility in the most efficient and transparent way," he said.

 

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