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Updated: Panel Discusses UT System Records Request

Sen. Kel Seliger, who co-chairs the Legislature's joint higher education oversight committee, said UT regents should have access to the information they have requested, but the committee wants to make sure it is being gathered and used appropriately.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas,l, and State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, shake hands upon convening the Joint Committee on Higher Education Oversight on March 19, 2013.

Updated, 2:42 p.m.:

At Tuesday’s inaugural hearing of the 83rd legislative session’s Joint Select Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, elaborated on the intentions of their recent open records request of the University of Texas System.

The request appeared to be tied in large part to the system’s requests of the University of Texas at Austin. Seliger said that the requested information should be available for regents but that the committee wants to make sure it is being gathered and used appropriately.

“We want to know who asked for what from whom and, in the scope of governance, were such things properly sought?” said Seliger, who chairs the oversight committee with Branch.

While the committee has jurisdiction over all university systems, the members clearly demonstrated a particular interest in the UT System, which is the only one they’ve made such a request from.

“Based on current reports we seem to have a particular situation at hand here in the city of Austin,” Branch said, adding that the committee hoped to calm and improve that situation.

State. Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, put it in the bluntest terms.

“Frankly I’m worried about efforts to remove a flagship university president,” he said, referring to UT-Austin President Bill Powers.

Pitts said there had been “witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt” of Powers, presumably coming from the regents.

“I hope we’ll be able to end these witch hunts,” Pitts said.

Once they receive responses from the system, Branch said the committee would put together a schedule for members to review the material. He assured Pitts and other members that if they so desired, they could then make further requests.

Multiple committee members asked about their subpoena power. While it appears they can compel testimony, Branch indicated that he was hopeful that regents would be happy to come testify at the committee’s request.

Original story:

University of Texas System regents have drawn attention for their massive open-records requests of the University of Texas at Austin. But the shoe appears to be on the other foot as multiple lawmakers have recently filed large records requests of the system.

Before Tuesday’s inaugural meeting of the 83rd legislative session’s Joint Select Oversight Committee of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, the panel’s co-chairmen — state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas — sent Gene Powell, the chairman of the UT System regents, a two-page request. They are seeking all communication between regents and members of the administration, faculty and staff of any institution, as well as communication among regents regarding potential appointees to the board.

Also sought are all information requests made by regents, including requests regarding employment or termination of employment of any university employees, any information requested about faculty tenure or performance, and requests regarding curriculum. The co-chairmen also ask for any correspondence and documents relating to groups like the American Association of Universities, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education

“The requests made from lawmakers were very broad in scope, touching a number of offices," UT System spokeswoman Karen Adler acknowledged.

Adler said that the system and the board of regents have received 243 requests in the last year, but indicated that the extra work created by the latest round from legislators did not create a burden.

"While it takes time to process them," she said, "it’s our obligation to be transparent and to respond to these requests as our regular course of business. The new requests really are not atypical from the many broad requests we receive frequently.”

CASE, which among other things, provides guidelines for fundraising reporting, is likely on the list because in 2012, UT Regent Wallace Hall attended a meeting at its Washington offices. The matter at hand was how in-kind software donations should be counted in capital campaigns. Hall, arguing against the position of UT-Austin's representative, concurred with CASE recommendations against counting such donations. When the system applied this policy, UT-Austin's fundraising totals took a $224 million hit.

Hall also generated headlines for asking that UT-Austin turn over all information requests and subsequent responses from a two-year period. That turned out to be about 40 boxes worth of documents.

In addition to the oversight committee, other lawmakers are also waiting on requests of the system, which they typically expect to be responded to as soon as possible as materials become available.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, has a request out relating to the regents’ investigation of the UT Law School Foundation. He described it to the Tribune as "comprehensive."

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a request on March 8 asking for all materials related to exchanges between UT-Austin President Bill Powers and any member of the board of regents, as well as any items sent to or from any regents or system personnel from a handful of individuals historically involved in controversial higher-education reform efforts, including businessman Jeff Sandefer, conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, and representatives of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Zaffirini, who made many similar requests during the previous legislative session, particularly asked to see emails involving Hall that reference Powers.

The system referred some of Zaffirini's request to Powers' office. In an email to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, which the Tribune obtained, Zaffirini wrote, "Had I wanted information from the President, I would have written to him or to his representative. Frankly, I saw that as an obvious but now unsuccessful attempt to 'punt' my request downward."

She wrote that she was "exceedingly disappointed" in the handling of her request and demanded "a meaningful, substantive (not 'piddly') response."

"Those who demand transparency and responsiveness should be role models in reflecting them," she wrote. "Demanding standards of accountability from others and not practicing them is not productive. It smacks of double standards based on convenience and on wrongful assumptions that some are 'above the law,' while those of lesser organizational status should adhere to it."

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Higher education Judith Zaffirini Kel Seliger