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UT System Regent Calls for Legislative Hearings

As tensions between lawmakers and the University of Texas System regents worsen, one regent is calling for hearings at the Capitol. “The legislators have serious questions,” Alex Cranberg told the Tribune. “Let’s be able to respond.”

UT System Regent Alex M. Cranberg listens to a speech before the Board by Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa on May 12, 2011.

There has been no gathering of the Legislature’s Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency since a preliminary organizational meeting on March 19.

Since then, tensions between state lawmakers and the regents have only worsened. But one regent is eager for the committee to reconvene. On Saturday, Regent Alex Cranberg told the Tribune, “Let’s have the hearings.”

The oversight committee was formed to look into the turmoil at the University of Texas System. Its first meeting did not include testimony from any witnesses but still managed to make headlines.

One member, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, accused the regents of being on a “witch hunt” to get UT-Austin President Bill Powers. Members appeared eager to subpoena regents if necessary. And the committee's co-chairs — state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas — announced a massive open records request they had filed with the system.

The most recent point of contention between the UT board and the committee relates to the system’s response to such requests. State statute provides lawmakers privileged access to information at state agencies. But on Friday, the chairman of the UT System regents, Gene Powell, asked the Texas attorney general if he can withhold some documents from the legislators — a move that has not been warmly received at the Capitol.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who filed her own comprehensive records request with the system, had already expressed displeasure with its responsiveness. On the heels of Powell’s request to the attorney general, she issued a statement saying, “My only conclusion is that they have something to hide.”

The next day, Cranberg indicated a willingness to address the concerns of Zaffirini and others. “The legislators have serious questions,” he told the Tribune. “Let’s be able to respond.”

Told of Cranberg’s comments, lawmakers on the committee, who have anticipated being able to use the documents provided by the system to inform their work, appeared unimpressed.

“It’s ridiculous for the system to call for a hearing at the same time it’s trying to conceal documents that would serve to illuminate,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, told the Tribune. “Can’t have your cake and eat it too. Not good practice. Not good policy. Just continued games.”

The request from Branch and Seliger was submitted nearly a month ago, on March 15. The legally required response time for open record requests made by the public is no more than 10 business days, but the law doesn’t specify the time limits for legislative requests. Powell has also asked the attorney general if the system is required to respond to legislators within a certain time frame.

Cranberg is among an active group of regents who have emphasized transparency and accountability throughout the system, particularly at the flagship university, and have made significant records requests of institutions.

On Sunday, talking with the Tribune, Branch said of the regents, “It seems to me that all this talk of accountability and transparency is starting to ring hollow.”

When asked about Powell’s request to withhold documents, Cranberg previously told the Tribune he believed the Legislature “deserves all the information we can get them as fast as we can.” 

While no upcoming hearing has yet been scheduled for the joint oversight committee, the regents are expected to get an opportunity to address some lawmakers’ concerns in a public forum the coming week.

Four regents have called a special board meeting, which is expected to be held on Thursday, to discuss and vote on some of the their recent controversial actions, including whether they should attempt to keep documents from lawmakers.

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