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Rift Between UT-Austin, UT System Appears to Deepen

Though 2013 ended with signals that the years-long rift between the UT-Austin administration and the UT System Board of Regents might be mended, a review of documents suggests that doesn't appear to be in the cards.

Francisco Cigarroa answers questions after resigning his post as UT System Chancellor on Feb. 10, 2014.

There were hopes and signals at the end of 2013 that the years-long rift between the University of Texas at Austin administration and the University of Texas System Board of Regents could be mended, that does not appear to be in the cards.

A review of more than 2,000 heavily redacted documents made available for examination by the system indicated that divisions between some regents, UT-Austin's administrators and system leaders have only deepened in the early months of 2014 — a period in which the system's chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa, also abruptly announced his intent to resign from his position.

The documents suggest that frustration appears to be mounting on all sides over a growing number of inquiries from regents, often from Wallace Hall of Dallas, into operations at the flagship university and university's responses — or lack thereof.

An example of a spike in tensions occurred in mid-January, when UT-Austin’s chief financial officer, Kevin Hegarty, sent a memo to Ward Farnsworth, the dean of the university’s law school, regarding questions sent from the system about the school’s admissions practices, which is the subject of one of the system’s many inquiries. Through his lawyers, Hall has alleged that the admissions process may be subject to undue influence by lawmakers. Hall is being investigated by a legislative committee, which is determining whether Hall should be impeached for allegedly overstepping his authority in his investigations of UT-Austin.

Among the questions from the system was one about how four unnamed individuals with grade-point averages ranging from 2.66 to 3.38 and LSAT scores ranging from 150 to 155, all of which are low for UT-Austin, were admitted. Another sought information on the recommendations received on behalf of the 10 students admitted with the lowest LSAT scores for each of the last five years. 

Farnsworth had apparently asked if student data could be provided in his responses. Hegarty indicated that he was working with outside counsel to ensure that student privacy was protected and that he could not allow the requested data to be disclosed at that time.

“If this is part of the new relationship between you (and by extension the Board of Regents) and President [Bill] Powers,” Hall wrote to Cigarroa the following evening, “I don’t believe it’s going well.”

Hall noted that the system had been seeking the information on law school admissions since October 2013. In December of that year, Cigarroa had recommended to the board, though some regents apparently felt otherwise, that Powers should remain president provided he work to improve his relationship with the chancellor and the board.

Cigarroa did not appreciate Hegarty’s memo either, and told the regents. But Hall said the chancellor was not addressing “the fundamental issue,” which was that Hegarty “is acting under direct supervision of Bill Powers.”

“I have no confidence that we will get full cooperation from Bill Powers now or in the future as his assurances are unsupported by the facts,” Hall wrote to Cigarroa.

Former board chairman Gene Powell added to that sentiment, noting that he had recently been reminded that, “When evaluating what a person will do in the future the past is ALWAYS the best predictor.”

“This is exactly the position in which we find ourselves,” Powell wrote. In a separate message, he asserted that Cigarroa’s call for increased cooperation in December had apparently not been “received or understood” by Powers and Hegarty, which prompted Powell to add, “I find that very disappointing,”

Cigarroa wrote a letter to Powers indicating that the stalling of the information had “become unacceptable” and instructing him and his leadership team to “fully cooperate” with the system.

On Tuesday, UT-Austin spokesman Gary Susswein said: “We did not release that information as was demanded, because we continued to have concerns about student privacy potentially being violated. However, the issue has been resolved in a manner both campus and system agree is consistent with federal privacy laws.”

Disclosure: At the time of publication, the University of Texas at Austin was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.) 

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