After years of simmering tension, a slate of long-awaited hearings that begin Tuesday may advance the ball toward potential resolution of a yearslong feud between the University of Texas System, its flagship institution and the Legislature.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations will, for the first time, hear public testimony from witnesses regarding its ongoing investigation of Regent Wallace Hall, which may conclude with articles of impeachment being filed against him. If Hall were to be impeached, he would be the first nonelected official in the state to suffer such a fate.
Hall has been accused of overstepping the bounds of his authority by making burdensome requests of the University of Texas at Austin staff, misrepresenting information about himself on his application to be a regent and mishandling private student information. Lawmakers have repeatedly accused him of being on a “witch hunt” targeting UT-Austin President Bill Powers.
Lawyers for Hall have disputed those allegations and contend that the regent’s behavior is “not a basis for impeachment.” They have raised questions about the impartiality of some committee members and about the committee’s planned procedure, particularly a decision to not allow cross-examination of witnesses.
Hall’s lawyer, Allan Van Fleet, indicated that they have little knowledge about how the hearings will proceed. “It’s the first real hearing, but we don’t have a clue what’s going on,” he said Monday. “It’s kind of like they’re throwing an impeachment, but we’re not really invited.”
House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who filed a resolution to begin the impeachment proceedings during a special session earlier this year, is expected to lead off the witness testimony, according to Rusty Hardin, a high-profile defense lawyer from Houston who is serving as the committee’s special counsel. Ultimately, the matter was turned over to the committee by Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, rather than proceeding with a vote on Pitts’ resolution.
Other witnesses expected in the next two days include Barry Burgdorf, the former vice chancellor and general counsel for the UT System, and representatives from the Gov. Rick Perry’s office, among them Teresa Spears, the governor’s former director of appointments.
“It will be a step toward public disclosure as to what happened and description from live witnesses, as opposed to people announcing their own side of the issue,” Hardin said. “The committee’s name is ‘transparency,’ and I think the public will get a chance to look and see what happened and judge for themselves, as will the committee.”
Coincidentally, while the committee is meeting to consider Hall’s fate, Powers expects to be named chairman of the Association of American Universities, an elite organization of top North American research universities, on Tuesday morning.
Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Higher Education Excellence, a group formed in 2011 amid controversy over the future of higher education in the state and the UT System in particular, said that given the honor, the state’s higher education governance issues are “ironic at best.”
Over the course of the last few years, members of the coalition have repeatedly — both through the coalition and independently — sounded alarm bells that Powers’ job was on the line.
“While his national peers are applauding his work,” she said of Powers, “members of his board of regents are undermining him and talking about ways to get rid of him, by multiple accounts. That is demoralizing to him as a leader, but also for the campus and for anybody that cares about higher education in Texas.”
In July, when the legislative committee was beginning its investigation, co-chairs state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, and state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, sent a letter to the UT System board’s then-chairman, Gene Powell, asking that no “adverse employment action” be taken against individuals, including Powers, who might be called as witnesses in the impeachment hearings.
In early October, just before the UT System regents held a special meeting, Flynn and Alvarado sent the system’s current chairman, Paul Foster, another letter to “respectfully reiterate” that no one should be fired. “We believe full compliance with this request is essential to ensure the integrity of the committee’s work,” they wrote.
Foster has indicated that, as chairman, he hopes to calm some of the turbulence that has marked the system's recent relationship with the Legislature. He also disputed the notion that the regents were undermining the flagship institution.
"Official actions taken by the Board of Regents over the past three years have been firmly focused on the best interests of UT-Austin and the extraordinary students it serves," he said in a statement. He noted that, in that time, the board has authorized more than $742 million in new funds for the institution, including money that will support a new medical school in Austin.
"We share President Powers' goal to position UT-Austin to be among the top public research universities in the U.S. and the world," he said, adding that their votes "demonstrate the Board's commitment to support UT and honor its mission in teaching and research."
The legislative committee is expected to meet again in November and December, each time for two days. While this week’s hearings will focus on what has occurred during Hall’s two-plus years as a regent, Hardin said, “In the next session or two, we will start looking at what standard a regent ought to be judged by.”