Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, is asking Gov. Rick Perry to step in and help ease the mounting tensions between the University of Texas System and members of the Legislature.
“When things turn out to be bad for an institution or bad for the state, the person who can resolve this quickest is the governor,” Seliger told the Tribune on Monday. "He ought to do what's best for the state of Texas. Turmoil in an institution for no good reason is something we certainly ought to be wary of. It's not productive."
Recent actions by the UT System’s Board of Regents have riled some lawmakers, including the UT board chairman’s attempt to withhold documents from them and a planned investigation of the University of Texas Law School Foundation, which some elected officials view as “unnecessary.” Both issues will be discussed Thursday at a meeting of the UT board.
Seliger, who also co-chairs the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, which was created in part to look into the UT board's management of the system's flagship university, said there were currently no plans in the Legislature to formerly censure any UT regents, though he noted, “It comes up.”
He also stopped short of demanding that Perry remove any of his appointees to the UT board. All nine regents are Perry appointees.
“I’m not yet calling on him to ask for resignations,” Seliger said of the governor, “but somewhere in there, at the current rate we’re going, that’s not altogether impossible.”
Perry’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some observers, including former UT regents, believe the responsibility for the turmoil lies in the Capitol. Lawmakers are considering bills to require more training and place more voting restrictions on new board members. The House recently added amendments to the budget stripping the UT System of funding and authority.
“I think the people in the Legislature have gone wacko,” said Charles Miller, a former chairman of the UT board. “They’ve been meddling. They’ve behaved like bullies recently.”
Miller said that lost in the discussion are the recent accomplishments of the UT regents, including a plan to create a university with a medical school in South Texas, their investment in a medical school in Austin and a partnership with the nonprofit organization edX to create innovative online courses.
But Seliger said that the notion that lawmakers were on a “witch hunt” — a term borrowed from state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who accused the regents of targeting University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers — to get the regents was “incorrect.”
As the turmoil threatens to worsen, the senator said the stakes were high.
“It seems that every day there are a few more calls and irate letters about people diminishing the stature of that university and that university system,” he said. “That should not be done by people who are perfectly dispensable. I think that’s a real shame.”