With the conclusion of a legislative committee’s investigation of University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall on the horizon, if not imminent, the panel is likely to wrap up its sessions without hearing from the man at the center of the inquiry.
“It’s my desire that we conclude our investigation by the end of the year,” state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, the co-chairman of House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the panel will begin its latest round of hearings on allegations that Hall had misused his office to conduct what some lawmakers have deemed a “witch hunt” to oust University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers. Hall’s requests for information from UT-Austin have yielded more than 800,000 documents, putting significant strain on the school's staff, according to university officials.
Hall has said he was fulfilling his duties as a regent by digging into potential malfeasance and misconduct at the university, including alleged favoritism in the admissions process.
Flynn said that after the committee concludes its investigation, members would determine the ultimate course of action, including a determination of whether Hall's actions are impeachable. Because no regent has ever been impeached in Texas history, and state statutes don't directly address the issue, the standard is entirely up to the regents.
After holding a series of hearings on the matter over the recent months, the group is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and Thursday, and no additional hearings have been announced. And in light of Hall’s decision to decline an invitation from the committee’s co-chairs to testify without a subpoena, it is possible the panel will only meet for one day this week.
“Unless Wallace Hall has a change of heart and wants to show up, we won’t be there on Thursday,” Rusty Hardin, the Houston attorney who is serving as the committee’s special counsel, said Tuesday.
The witnesses expected to testify Wednesday include former UT System Board Chairman Scott Caven, former UT System Regent John Barnhill, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Powers.
The testimony of Cigarroa and Powers, both of whom were subpoenaed by the committee, will receive particular scrutiny in light of a recent board meeting at which Powers’ job was up for discussion and was nearly put to a vote.
Cigarroa read a recommendation to the board that Powers remain president of UT-Austin, but he added that their relationship and Powers’ relationship with board members and system administrators had been “significantly strained.”
"The main reason for the strain,” Cigarroa said, “is that Bill and I would agree upon certain principles, and I would act on those principles, but then Bill Powers would often convey a message of misalignment, leading to conflict between UT System administration and the University of Texas at Austin."
While noting that Powers has significant support from students, faculty and alumni, Cigarroa also said that maintaining Powers’ presidential appointment “would require good citizenship, respect for one another, a commitment to rebuilding trust among us, cooperation with the University of Texas System, as well as in system-wide initiatives and important inquiries, and the continued advancement of excellence."
There is a sense among those who have watched the situation closely that the recent “nondecision decision” — the UT board never voted on Cigarroa’s recommendation to keep Powers around — could be a significant step toward quelling the controversy that has surrounded the system and its flagship institution for nearly three years.
But it is possible that the impeachment hearings could stir things up again.
Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of higher ed observers — including Caven and Barnhill — that formed in 2011 and has been supportive of Powers, said she did not believe the president, by testifying, was at risk of running afoul of Cigarroa’s guidelines.
“I think the only thing he’s at risk of is telling the truth,” Sarver said, “and if that in any way doesn’t align with what the system has to say, then that’s not through any fault of his own. And I would imagine the committee is not interested in fueling further fire between the chancellor and the president.”
Sarver said the hearings were still important because the question of the proper role and behavior of regents had yet to be settled.
“Bill Powers has become a bit of a figurehead for this overall debate,” she said, “but it’s always been much more than just about his job.”
Hardin agreed. “The committee’s focus was never to protect Powers’ job,” he said. “There was obviously considerable legislative support for Powers, but that’s not what this is about. This is about what Hall did and whether or not it met the acceptable standard for conduct by a regent.”
If the committee opts not — or does not manage — to wrap up its business by the end of 2013, it will have to extend Hardin’s contract, which expires at the end of the month.