University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers told a legislative panel on Wednesday that persistent controversy, largely stemming from the actions of a University of Texas System regent, has taken a toll on the university's reputation.
The House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations has been investigating the actions of Regent Wallace Hall, who has personally conducted extensive investigations of alleged mismanagement at the system's flagship university — behavior many lawmakers have called a "witch hunt" to oust Powers. University officials say they have turned over 800,000 documents in response to Hall's requests for information.
The committee has been charged with determining if Hall's atypical approach as a regent is cause for impeachment. If the committee recommends articles of impeachment and a majority of the Texas House affirms them, which would send the matter to the Senate, Hall will be the first gubernatorial appointee in state history to be impeached.
When state Rep. Walter "Four" Price, R-Amarillo, pressed Powers to quantify the cost to the university of satisfying Hall's demands for information, as well as the ensuing controversy and speculation about the future of the university's leadership, the president estimated that the total was more than $1 million.
Powers said that in addition to a monetary hit, "this has done significant harm to our reputation in the academic world nationally and internationally." He said the ongoing situation had made it more difficult to recruit and retain top faculty and had led to the loss of a "star football recruit."
Powers was the final witness at what is currently the committee's final planned day of public testimony. The committee had invited Hall to testify on Thursday, but it appears likely to conclude its investigation without speaking to him. Hall said he would only appear if he was subpoenaed, as most other witnesses — including Powers — were, but the committee opted not to issue one for him.
Committee co-chair Dan Flynn, R-Van, who had previously expressed an openness to eventually issue Hall a subpoena, opened Wednesday's hearing by saying Hall's refusal to testify was "offensive" and compared it to "a slap in the face." He expressed consternation that Hall had been afforded the opportunity to testify and recommend witnesses to the committee but had chosen to do neither.
Co-chair Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, expressed annoyance at Hall's attempt to set the terms of his appearance. In other legislative hearings, she said, "invited guests do not get to dictate under what circumstances they appear."
The committee was not of one mind on the issue, though. State Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, acknowledged that concluding the investigation without hearing from its main subject "probably leaves a bad taste." He added, "I think if we wanted him here, we should have extended a subpoena."
Before Powers' appearance, the committee heard from Scott Caven, a former chairman of the UT System board, and John Barnhill, a former regent. Both testified that they could not recall a regent who operated as independently or conducted himself as Hall has since joining the board in 2011.
The committee then spent hours hearing testimony from and questioning UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who said that the controversy has been "disruptive" and that Hall's demands for the rapid production of documents "at times were unreasonable."
And while he said the issue had not "paralyzed the system," he said it had caused some pain. "The reason why it was painful for me is that I did see morale drop," he said.
Cigarroa expressed discomfort with some of Hall's lines of inquiry, particularly the regent's demands to see Powers' personal travel records. He said Hall's involvement in talks with University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban about moving to UT-Austin — about which Powers was not notified — "was wrong."
But Cigarroa said that Hall had also made positive contributions to the board, and that the system was putting together a process to make his requests more specific and manageable. That did not appease every committee member.
Members wondered why the chancellor had investigated certain issues raised by Hall, such as alleged favoritism for the children of politicians in the UT-Austin admissions process, but had not pressed the issue when it became clear the regent had inadvertently obtained and shared confidential information about a student.
Rusty Hardin, the special counsel to the committee, explained that an investigation of former compensation practices at the UT-Austin School of Law — that Hall pushed for — had stalled at the attorney general's office because Hall has not responded to requests for guidance about what should be investigated. Cigarroa said he could not explain why Hall would not cooperate.
Ultimately, Cigarroa said, "The board has to govern itself."
Last week, the question of Powers' employment was up for a potential vote at a meeting of the UT System regents. Cigarroa recommended that Powers be allowed to keep his position as president but that to keep it "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 systemwide initiatives and important inquiries, and the continued advancement of excellence."
No vote was taken on the recommendation, but Paul Foster, the board's chairman, publicly expressed support for Powers and Cigarroa.
When Hardin asked Cigarroa if he could understand why Powers might be "prickly" in light of his administration's dealings with the board, Cigarroa said he could — and that his call for good citizenship extended to the board.
Powers said he has not had a conversation with Hall in more than six months. Of the nine-member board of regents — 10 including the nonvoting student regent — Powers said he had a "very cordial" and "very productive" relationship with five of them.
Both Cigarroa and Powers conveyed optimism about the future relationship between the university administration, the system and the board. "I think everybody wants to move beyond this," Powers said. "We've got to move beyond this and move ahead."
At the end of the hearing, Flynn indicated that letters would soon be sent to Powers and Cigarroa detailing issues the committee intended to continue monitoring. The committee also directed Hardin to prepare a final report. A decision on the committee's next actions — including the possible recommendation of articles of impeachment — will be made following review of the report.
Hardin's contract, which was set to expire at the end of the month, will be extended through January and possibly into February, Flynn said, as the report is prepared and the committee mulls its next steps.
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