House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, is worried that the 2013 legislative session could become a repeat of 2011, when his agenda was overshadowed by tension between university system regents, academic leaders, and lawmakers over questions of governance and reforms.
The situation became so heated that a special oversight committee was formed to hold public hearings on the way higher education institutions in the state were governed, and how reforms were being implemented.
Nearly two years later, Branch said he believed the controversies had subsided. He pointed to signs of progress, such as the public, data-rich websites that a number of state university systems recently launched that make their procedures more transparent.
“I thought we were going to get back to regents managing chancellors, who then manage their institutions based on these dashboards,” he said this week. “But it seems to me that we’ve gone back to what some people call micromanaging.”
The early rumblings of yet another turbulent session for higher education recently began, sparked by lawmakers’ accusations that regents of the University of Texas system — all appointed by Gov. Rick Perry — are “micromanaging” its flagship institution. But regents and system officials, while acknowledging a more aggressive style than previous boards, balk at that characterization.
The joint oversight committee has already been renewed, with Branch and Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, as co-chairmen.
Seliger was blunt about its intended focus.
“This sort of thing comes up, and we find other systems with glitches and upheavals occasionally,” he said, “but right now, it’s the University of Texas.”
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, a member of the oversight committee, said that micromanagement was “absolutely” occurring at UT.
“I’ve heard that there are some regents who are still skipping over the chancellor and over the president to go directly to deans or other personnel and issue directives,” she said. “I thought lessons had been learned, but obviously not.”
The strain between the UT system and its flagship university returned to public view last month when University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers — widely believed to be in the crosshairs of some UT regents — was honored on the Senate floor.
“I believe in reform. I know Bill Powers believes in reform,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. “That’s why I’m particularly troubled when I see UT regents going around this man and this administration.”
The remarks set off a flurry of activity, culminating with the reconstitution of the joint committee. Seliger also filed a bill that would require regents to complete ethics training and receive lawmaker approval before being allowed to vote on personnel and budgetary issues. It also clarifies that duties not designated for the board or the system are reserved for the institution.
Some view the bill as a rebuke. “If members were comporting themselves with principles of good practice, it wouldn’t be necessary to legislate board behavior,” said Rich Novak, senior vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
Seliger said that the bill, which he is open to adjusting, “is not designed to be severe or punitive.” And he said the oversight committee is not aimed at lessening regents’ authority.
“If the board of regents call the chancellor tomorrow and tell him they want Britney Spears to be the next president of the institution, that’s who it will be,” he said. “It may not be good judgment, but it’s absolutely within their right.”
But opinions vary on whether regents are engaging in productive behavior and following the proper chain of command.
“The important thing is that the regents don’t run the individual institutions,” Seliger said. “Has there been micromanagement? I don’t know that and I wouldn’t accuse anybody of it, but given the concerns that have been expressed to me, it’s worth asking the question.”
Gene Powell, the chairman of the UT System board, indicated that he welcomed the opportunity to answer it. “As regents, we all look forward to a forum in which we can have a public conversation about our efforts and how those efforts are now on the leading edge of higher education in America,” he said.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa conceded that there had been a culture shift on the UT board since 2011. “There has been a kind of new steady state of a lot of questions being asked, and we had to get used to that,” he said. “You know, it made me uncomfortable two years ago until I got used to it. I’m not defensive about it anymore.”
He observed that technology has heightened expectations for easy access to information, which may be altering the culture on governing boards. “If a board is focused on policy, it is okay for them to ask a lot of questions to find the best policy,” he said.
Some of those questions can create significant demands on university staff.
UT regent Wallace Hall, who was appointed in 2011, recently caused raised eyebrows by requesting that UT-Austin provide him with information about all open-records requests for a two-year period. The documents filled nearly 40 boxes, on top of an unusually heavy demand by regents for other data. Hall did not respond to requests for comment.
Alex Cranberg, a UT regent who was also appointed in 2011 and has also made numerous data requests of UT-Austin, disputed the idea that such inquiries constituted micromanagement.
“Obtaining information is not in itself micromanagement unless the information is used in the attempt to control, as opposed to an attempt to make better-informed policy, governance and accountability decisions,” he said.
Novak said it was important that such requests follow proper channels and have clear objectives. “Regents shouldn’t be on any kind of fishing expedition,” he said.
From a historical perspective, the notion of micromanagement from the board is not new for UT-Austin.
Former UT-Austin President Peter Flawn, who served from 1979 to 1985, recalled one former board member who was heavily involved in university personnel decisions. “Frank Erwin was an activist regent,” he wrote in an email, “but, when I was president, his interference, while clearly micromanagement, was benign and designed to advance the university.”
Less than two weeks after Dewhurst's comments, there are signs of tempers cooling. On Wednesday, he said that he believes the regents and university administrators are “both well-intentioned and believe in the value of reform.”
Seliger and Branch say they hope to avoid the friction of the last session.
“Where I’m trying to get is to the right balance between meddling and micromanaging, which we don’t want, and being asleep at the wheel, which we don’t want,” Branch said. “I’m trying to find the sweet spot of governance.”