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A Waiting Game for UT's Regents

As time runs out on the legislative session, little action has occurred regarding the much-hyped "micromanagement" by University of Texas System regents. Meanwhile, other regent-watching groups are dealing with internal troubles.

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Lawmakers have proven to be effective allies of anyone wary of the University of Texas System regents and have accused those regents of “micromanaging” UT-Austin. The legislative session has seen a fair share of threats that appear to have inspired a change of course on at least some controversial proposals by the UT board. 

But the last few months have been short on action. No regent has yet been summoned to the Capitol and subjected to a public hearing. A joint oversight committee created specifically to investigate the UT situation has yet to hold a substantive meeting.

The clock is ticking. While lawmakers say they will continue to pay attention after Sine Die, it won't get easier to assemble once they head home in less than a month. Meanwhile, it is not entirely clear that all the self-appointed regent watchers will be able to keep their eyes on the same target — or exactly what that target is.

The latest evidence of that is a slickly produced internet video that was widely distributed this week that very directly accused Gov. Rick Perry and some of his appointees of being “intent on tearing down” the flagship university.

To the dismay of some members of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a high-profile group that formed in 2011 to oppose Perry’s higher education proposals, the video was produced by three members of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.

The direct attack on the governor, which was not in keeping with the group’s previous strategy, gave Perry the opportunity to take the high road. His spokesman accused them of putting “petty rivalries” ahead of progress. Ray Sullivan, the governor’s former chief of staff, said they were “motivated by profound elitism and deep paranoia.”

It’s not the first time an attempt to land a blow has backfired.

In February, John Beckworth, the president of the Texas Exes, sent an email blast to the alumni organization's thousands of members saying, “A university of the first class deserves first-class regents.” Many interpreted that as a shot at previously appointed board members.

It prompted prominent Texas Ex Red McCombs of San Antonio to respond to Beckworth: “By using Texas Exes letterhead, you indicated that fine organization is supportive [of the knock on the regents]. I doubt that is true. I have been contacted by many today and everyone is contrary and upset by your comments.”

If anything, the upshot of the exchange was that McCombs’ note had an emboldening effect on the controversial cadre of regents.

It’s unlikely that either side was moved by what little public testimony on the issue there has been this session.

At a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing in March, discussing Senate Bill 15 by committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, which adds training requirements and voting restrictions for new regents, the Texas Exes leadership and members of the UT-Austin student government testifying were unable to provide legislators with convincing examples of micromanagement by the regents.

That did not stop Seliger’s bill from moving; it is now resting in the House Calendars Committee. There were also budget amendments added in the House, restricting the UT regents’ funding and authority, to be mulled over by the conference committee. And the Senate Nominations Committee appears to be taking its time with Perry’s newest UT regent nominees. If they don’t win approval by the end of the session, those nominees will be prohibited from joining the board. On the other hand, Perry could then put whoever else he wants in the empty slots until the next regular session, in 2015.

The potential for legislative maneuvers that break in favor of the anti-regent camp remains, but only for the month. If May proves as productive as the months that preceded it, groups like the Coalition may find themselves finishing the session about where they started, only with more cracks showing.

And that may be by design. Back in March, the joint oversight committee submitted a massive records requested to the UT board and indicated that what they receive would inform their hearings. Ostensibly, those hearings have yet to happen because the regents deliberately delayed their responses to that and other requests. The regents also know that the clock is winding down.

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