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Despite Lawmakers' Concerns, UT Regent's Requests Continue

Lawmakers have expressed concerns about the investigative approach of the University of Texas System Board of Regents. But based on a request made this week, at least one regent appears undeterred.

Dallas businessman Wallace Hall, Jr. takes notes at the University of Texas Board of Regents meeting on Feb. 14, 2013 in Austin.

After the conclusion of a legislative session in which Texas lawmakers repeatedly expressed concerns about the investigative approach of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, at least one regent appears undeterred in his quest for information.

Wallace Hall has raised eyebrows with his large requests for documents from the University of Texas at Austin. On Tuesday, he requested all of UT-Austin’s open records responses from March and April, with the exclusion of private student information protected by federal law, with the added request that the documents be provided the next day.

"We are unable to gather two months worth of documents in a day, so we indicated that it should be ready in the next week or so," said UT-Austin spokesman Gary Susswein, who declined to comment further.

Hall has already received most of the university's responses to open records requests over the last two years and is seeking to update his files. He has also requested other information, including documents relating to controversial and now-defunct compensation practices at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

In an email, Hall told the Tribune: "This has been a very informative process for the chancellor and the board. Our initial review of documents already produced to the public as well as the confidential documents enables institutional and system leadership the opportunity to be more fully informed on what is transpiring at our campuses. It is irresponsible to ignore the information."

But the multiple requests — and the sheer volume of them — troubled a number of lawmakers. During the session, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, accused some of the regents of being on a "witch hunt" to get UT-Austin President Bill Powers.

Pitts added language to the budget, which will take effect in September, that creates restrictions on how the UT System board can use state money and requires them to notify the Legislative Budget Board in advance of launching any investigations.

In the upper chamber, many senators voiced similar concerns during a long, tense meeting of the Senate Nominations Committee when Gov. Rick Perry's latest appointees for the UT System board — including the reappointment of El Paso businessman Paul Foster — were being considered.

When he was asked about the extent to which his colleagues on the board were digging into UT-Austin, Foster said: "I think in limited situations it’s healthy. I think at the level that has taken place, it’s unhealthy."

Foster also committed to working with other regents to see if they could curb their data requests and reconsider their investigative bent. "I wish there was a lot less of it," he told lawmakers.

Foster, along with Jeff Hildebrand of Houston and Ernest Aliseda of McAllen, were ultimately confirmed by the full Senate. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, indicated he voted for the three men because they "made promises, have the ability and can be voices of reason, moderation and reconciliation."

But Hall does not appear prepared to stop reviewing UT-Austin's documents.

And they may soon be easier to acquire. The system is developing a public online database where all of their academic institutions' open records requests and responsive documents will be made available. A similar tool is being developed for the system office. "Improving transparency to improve our performance and accountability is a very good business practice," Hall wrote in his email.

He also explained why his requests seem to be focused on UT-Austin.

"I began my system-wide review at UT-Austin because it is the flagship. Austin has the most requests annually, which is helpful in directing resources for this new online effort," he wrote. "I have persevered with Austin because I have found and continue to find disturbing inconsistencies in their performance. These irregularities cannot be ignored simply because they are uncomfortable for some."

As for the lawmakers, Hall wrote, "I appreciate they have a job to do and while they may not always understand our role, we are doing our best to fulfill our obligations to the students, our institutions and the people of Texas."

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