The University of Texas System regents concluded their annual August meeting by reshuffling the board's leadership, selecting Paul Foster, a businessman from El Paso, as their new chairman.
Foster replaces Gene Powell, whose tenure as chairman lasted about two and a half years and featured a number of accomplishments — among them, the creation of a new university in South Texas — that were largely overshadowed by tension with lawmakers and the University of Texas at Austin, the system's flagship institution.
Powell called the change the "worst-kept secret in Texas" and said that being chairman "has been an outstanding event in my life." He will continue on the board in a leadership role, as his colleagues elected the first vice chairman of the board. Regent Steve Hicks was elected the other vice chairman. The terms of both men conclude in 2015.
Foster thanked his colleagues for their "confidence and support" and said he was "ready to get to work."
Foster was recently re-appointed to the board after a tense Senate confirmation hearing in which he and two other regents were encouraged to "move beyond the controversy."
"I'm committed to that," he told reporters after being voted into his new position. "I'm committed to trying to move this system forward and get passed some of the distractions that we've had and to get everyone working on the same page. I'm confident we can do it."
Foster said it was too early to provide specifics on what changes he plans to make.
Steven Leslie, UT-Austin's outgoing provost and executive vice president, said the university administration was "delighted" at the selection of Foster.
"I think he is a very strong appointment, and University of Texas at Austin is looking forward to working with him," Leslie said. "We feel that we will advance our university under his leadership."
In recent months, tempers have particularly flared around the system's handling of documents — around fulfilling records requests from lawmakers and facilitating the regents' requests for information from UT-Austin. That issue was a topic of discussion both inside and outside the board room during this week's meeting.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, sent a letter to regents and system administrators expressing her "great concern and disappointment" that requests she made in March have not yet been completely fulfilled. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, also wrote to Powell expressing similar concerns about his own requests this week.
Zaffirini said she was concerned that requests such as hers were being delayed as the system handled records requests made by Wallace Hall, an embattled regent with a penchant for investigative work. She urged the system to "immediately cease the preferential treatment" afforded to Hall.
On that note, regents discussed the system's compliance with the Texas Public Information Act. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa called for a targeted review of the handling and processing of requests, the staffing of the offices that handle requests, and the decision-making processes relating to the release of documents, among other issues. The review is expected to be completed by the end of October.
"Obviously we all want to be in compliance with TPIA and any other regulations and laws out there," Foster said, noting that after the review, regents should have a training session dealing with email and document retention to be sure they are following the rules.
“I think its something that we all want to do, and we just want to be sure we know what the rules are," he said.