The Texas Constitution mandates that the Legislature “establish, organize and provide for the maintenance, support and direction of a University of the first class … styled ‘The University of Texas’ for the promotion of literature, and the arts and sciences.” In the Texas Education Code, the Legislature placed the governance of the University of Texas System, which includes the University of Texas at Austin, in the nine member board of regents appointed by the governor. The board is charged with governing the UT System “in such a way as will achieve the maximum operating efficiency of such institution and entities.” It is within this framework of governance that the board is duty bound to operate.
With respect to UT-Austin, in the last two years certain regents have conducted themselves in a manner that can best be described as contrary to the imperative of the Texas Constitution to provide support and direction of a “University of the first class” and in violation of their statutory duty to govern the UT “in such a way as will achieve the maximum operating efficiency” for UT.
It has taken years and a great deal of effort to get UT to the point that it is nationally recognized as a tier-one teaching/research university. On the UT campus is the No. 1 ranked public College of Education. UT also boasts a School of Law that has a national reputation as one of the one of the best. Anyone familiar with UT knows that it also has a nationally ranked College of Engineering, School of Business, School of Fine Arts, School of Nursing and School of Social Work, just to mention a few. UT’s current president, Bill Powers, has continued the work of his predecessors in enhancing the national standing of UT as a premier tier one public university. Powers has directed his attention to improving the undergraduate core curriculum and the graduation rate for incoming freshmen. Additionally, he has led a capital fundraising campaign that has already raised over $3 billion. Undoubtedly, Powers has had his eye on the goal mandated by the Texas Constitution of maintaining and supporting UT as a university of the first class.
There is an old adage in Texas that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The very public and undisputed evidence makes abundantly clear that UT is not broke and needs no fixing. Yet certain members of the board have injected themselves into the day-to-day affairs of UT in a manner which evidences either a lack of understanding of their constitutional and statutory duties, or a total disregard for such constitutional and statutory mandates. The most recent and obvious examples of this conduct are the inexplicable demand by a regent for all documents making up responses by UT to the open records requests, the demand that Powers appear before the board to explain why he had not appointed a vice president for fundraising, and seeking an independent review of the operations of the UT School of Law Foundation after the board’s own general counsel conducted an exhaustive review of the foundation and issued a comprehensive report on the findings. The open records requests resulted in the delivery of 40 file boxes of documents to that regent. The inappropriate questioning of Powers with respect to hiring a vice president for fund raising ignored a most impressive record of raising over $3 billion in difficult economic times. The board’s demand for an independent review of the foundation’s operations, after receiving the report of the system’s general counsel, smacks of a “witch hunt” — as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee labeled it in a public hearing. All of this and other board actions with no apparent good governance goal constitute a diversion of valuable staff time and resources from UT’s constitutionally mandated mission to be a university of the first class and the board’s statutory duty to achieve the maximum operating efficiency for UT.
The actions of the board and its focus on UT also diverts the board’s own time, efforts and energy from its governance responsibilities relative to the other system institutions. UT is the flagship institution, but it is part of a 15-member system. The public record over the last two years leads to the conclusion that the board is pursuing a misguided agenda unrelated to its constitutional and statutory governance responsibilities to manage all of the institutions in a manner designed to achieve maximum operating efficiency.
Someday the current members of the board will have completed their tenures. What legacy will they leave? One of working with all the institutions to truly carry out the mission of providing meaningful education to students seeking a wide range of educational experiences? Or a legacy of opportunities lost and a memory of acts of obstruction which only served to diminish the flagship and other institutions of the System in the eyes of those seeking a great educational experience in Texas?
The eyes of Texas are upon them.
De Leon is an attorney and founder of Austin-based De Leon & Washburn, and a UT alumnus.