In an exclusive interview with Texas Monthly, controversial and elusive University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall acknowledged that he did not recognize the need for ongoing communication with the Legislature.
Speaking Thursday afternoon with the magazine's senior executive editor Brian D. Sweany, the Dallas businessman addressed what he called "confusion" surrounding the activities of the regents in the eyes of state lawmakers. "I would say that I have a growing and expanding mea culpa in not appreciating their need for communication from the board," Hall conceded. "I get that now. I did not recognize our need to be over there and talking to them.”
On Thursday, the regents heeded the will of lawmakers who had urged them to save money by having the attorney general's office conduct an external review of discontinued compensation practices at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. The matter had been previously investigated by outgoing UT System general counsel Barry Burgdorf, but the regents opted to set his report aside and commission an outside review — a move most Texas senators have called "unnecessary."
In addition to voting unanimously to have the AG conduct the review, the board also unanimously agreed to follow state law that grants legislators privileged access to their records. UT Regents Chairman Gene Powell had previously asked the attorney general if the board might be able to withhold some documents from lawmakers, which did not go over well in the Capitol.
Elected officials have sent strong signals to the regents that they are willing to punish them for what some have called a "witch hunt" aimed at UT-Austin President Bill Powers. There are multiple proposals under consideration at the Capitol that would establish greater training requirements and voting restrictions for new board members, as well as specifically strip the UT System board of authority and funding.
"They have the power to do what they want to do, though I trust they will be sensitive to the unintended consequences that affect this board’s ability — and the ability of future boards — to manage our system," Hall told Texas Monthly.
Hall has drawn particular scrutiny because of his penchant for making large, burdensome information requests of UT-Austin, and because, as detailed by the Tribune, he failed to disclose a number of lawsuits in which he was involved on his application for the position on the UT board.
"The lawsuits that were omitted all had to do with protecting the wetlands from eminent domain. These were not material lawsuits, in terms of personal value or investment value," Hall told Texas Monthly.
Hall said he felt that he had disclosed the information required of him and has since provided the governor's office with supplemental material. "There was no intent to do anything other than to be fully forthcoming," he said.
As for the bad press that has dogged the board for the last two years, Hall seems to lay the blame on the feet of a handful of individuals.
"When I came on the board in 2011 there was an immediate activity by a small group of people — maybe ten or so — who formed a group called the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education," he said. "The idea is to support higher education, and who doesn’t want to support higher education? But the reality of it is, this group has damaged the university and this board’s effort."
According to its website, the group to which Hall refers, which formed in 2011 in opposition to a set of controversial reforms endorsed by Perry that some feared the UT board intended to implement, claims more than 300 "founding members."
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