Though it was created out of controversy, this week’s day-long meeting of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency — its second — was largely a calm affair. It still managed to stoke some fires, however.
The meeting focused on “governance” with invited testimony from the chairmen of the board of regents from each university system as well as two former regents.
Perhaps most interestingly, a recurring theme questioned the status quo of the boards that govern higher education. Specifically, are they due for more restrictive conflict-of-interest policies?
A set of proposals for changing higher education put forward by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, recently provoked significant backlash. Both the Texas A&M University System and the University of Texas System have regents serving on the TPPF board.
Gov. Rick Perry instructed regents to implement TPPF's proposals, and Texas A&M's regents went along. Because TPPF has a stated higher education agenda, a number of participants in the committee are now asking whether regents on the think tank's board can ethically make decisions on behalf of the university system, which occasionally might call for a different direction.
In his public testimony, Gordon Appleman, a member of a coalition organized to resist the TPPF reforms, as well as a prominent Fort Worth lawyer and alumnus of UT-Austin, made the case using UT System regent Brenda Pejovich, who is a TPPF board member, as his example.
“The TPPF and its collaborators have and continue actively to criticize the UT System and its institutions and advocate positions in clear conflict with the University administration,” Appleman said, arguing that this dual loyalty constituted a “breach of duty.”
When committee co-chair Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, put the question of conflicts of interest directly to UT System Regents Chair Gene Powell, he didn’t go for it.
In fact, it was the one of the only points in his testimony when Powell directly refuted the premise of her questioning. The other was when he refused to cough up the name of the person who recommended Rick O’Donnell, a TPPF fellow that Powell hired to serve as an adviser (O'Donnell instantly sparked controversy, and only lasted 49 days before being terminated). Later, Zaffirini said that she had received different answers from her sources: that it was the governor, TPPF board member Jeff Sandefer, their staffs, or some combination of those people.
The rest of Powell’s testimony — like that of all the other chairs throughout the day — was marked by agreement. To a system, they all said they had tossed aside the TPPF’s specific proposals and moved on.
Initially Powell was tentative on the question of conflicts. “I can’t say it’s a conflict of interest. I’m not an attorney,” he said. As Zaffirini continued to press him, he cautioned that reaching such a conclusion could infringe on regents’ right to free speech. “Is it wrong to be a Rotarian?” he asked. “I would say the TPPF is like any other organization.”
In public testimony, former UT System Chancellor Bill Cunningham, now a UT professor, acknowledged that many previous regents had had significant political ties, though he noted, “The great regents were largely independent from the governor, from their political party, and from all other outside forces that might have an impact on the University of Texas.”
All the regent chairs, Powell included, expressed support for a more strenuous vetting of regents by the Texas Senate. And when asked by co-chair Dan Branch, R-Dallas, they also appeared open to reconsidering the length of their six-year terms and even the size of their boards.
Before leaving, committee member Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, observed that much had been said about TPPF throughout the day. “There’s lots of think tanks out there that maybe even disproportionately influence lawmakers, different boards that govern our state agencies,” she said.
While she said lawmakers need to reflect on the issue, she also thanked think tanks “just to the right of center and just to the left of center” for inspiring the in-depth policy conversations like the seven-hour discussion the committee had just endured.
Some of that “kumbaya” feeling didn’t last.
Shortly after the hearing, conservative blogger Michael Quinn Sullivan, attacked Kenny Jastrow, a major UT booster who had testified along similar lines as Appleman.
“The apologists for higher education bloat were apparently interested in how they can loot their institutions and taxpayers. They found their man,” Sullivan wrote on his blog. Jastrow wasn't immediately available for comment.
In some ways, the public testimony and Sullivan’s response seemed to return to the tone of the spring, when the controversy was roiling and there were daily allegations of misconduct from both sides of the discussion.
It was a reminder that, though things have been calm in recent months, the flames haven’t gone out — and they could flare up at any moment.