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UT Regent Recorded Chancellor Without His Knowledge

During a closed-door session of the University of Texas System Board of Regents in August, one of the regents recorded a discussion with Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa without his knowledge, the system confirmed this week.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announces his resignation on Feb. 10, 2014.

Updated, April 29, 7:45 p.m.: 

University of Texas System Regent Alex Cranberg provided the following statement on Tuesday regarding an executive session of the system's Board of Regents that he recorded in August 2013 without the knowledge of other participants: 

"In August, 2013 the Chancellor provided the Board in executive session his performance assessment of President Bill Powers. The Chancellor had obviously devoted considerable effort and thoughtful deliberation to his remarks.  I didn't know what position he would take.  I am a great admirer of Chancellor Cigarroa and believe strongly that he is both extremely capable and has the best interests of the University at heart. The Chancellor chooses his words and tone very carefully and with nuance whenever he speaks about an important and sensitive topic.  I believed that it was very important that I understand exactly what the Chancellor said and how he said it, both for my own guidance and to be better able to discuss these remarks later with my fellow Regents (and eventually even University historians) after time had passed.

The Certified Agenda prepared by the Board Attorney is not required by law to document executive session discussions verbatim although it may do so.  It is not unusual for individual Regents for their own use to take notes, perhaps even very extensive notes.   Accordingly and exceptionally I recorded those remarks and the subsequent discussion which included the Chancellor.  I consulted that recording to correct my written notes. I did inform then Chairman Powell afterwards and eventually the Board Office that I had done so, but kept the recording private.

To this day it is only the subpoena from the Transparency Committee which has released this recording to third parties, an event that I had not anticipated. I trust the Transparency Committee will find it helpful to them; I believe it to show that the entire Board operated in a professional and considered way in discussing a very difficult and charged topic. Ultimately I chose to be guided by the Chancellor's assessment of the situation and have redoubled my efforts to focus on working with President Powers and the other Presidents, the Chancellor, my fellow Board members and the University community to make the University an even greater institution.  We have important work and we should move forward."

Original Story, April 28, 9:45 p.m.: 

During a closed-door session of the University of Texas System Board of Regents in August, one of the regents recorded a discussion with Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa without his knowledge, the system confirmed this week.

System officials declined to identify the board member who performed the clandestine taping, though they confirmed the tape's existence was later divulged by the person who recorded it. Multiple people with ties to the system told The Texas Tribune that the regent who made the recording was Alex Cranberg, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011. Cranberg did not return phone calls seeking comment.  

It wasn't just Cigarroa who was unaware of the recording; other regents, including the current chairman, Paul Foster, were also not informed they were being taped during the confidential discussion.

The private recording of a closed board meeting, where officials are expected to speak more freely, received mixed reactions from previous board leaders. 

James Huffines, who chaired the UT System board from 2004 to 2007 and again from 2009 to 2010, did not mince words. "Any appointee on any state board that records part of an executive session without the knowledge of other appointees has lost the trust and confidence and should consider resigning," he said.

Charles Miller, who was chairman of the board from 2001 to 2004, said that it was "unusual, but not necessarily wrong." He said it was important to consider the context: that the August board meeting where the recording occurred featured "a review of a president who has continually had trouble with his board, individual regents and the previous chancellor as well." 

At that August meeting, the chancellor provided his review of the presidents of the system's institutions, including the sensitive subject of University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers. 

The contentious relationship between Powers and some board members has been the focus of multiple legislative hearings since 2011. The fallout from the conflict could make history: One legislative committee is currently mulling recommendations of impeachment against Regent Wallace Hall, who is also being investigated by the Travis County district attorney's office because of issues stemming from his aggressive approach to oversight of UT-Austin. Hall has denied any wrongdoing.

According to very detailed notes taken by Cranberg during the executive session in August, which were released by the system, strong feelings were conveyed during the discussion about Powers, including the belief that he is "essentially insubordinate." That Cigarroa had previously asked Powers to resign and that the president had refused was also mentioned. 

Less thorough notes taken by Hall, which were also released by the system this week, strike a similar tone. His notes consist of short words and phrases like "trust broken" and "lack of veracity."

In December, Cigarroa recommended that Powers' employment be continued provided he work to improve his relationship with the chancellor and the board. Nearly 50 days after Cigarroa declined to terminate Powers' employment, Hall wrote to Foster to convey a belief that the president was not becoming more cooperative. Hall suggested there was a marked difference between "what has been promised to us as compared to what we have received."

Gary Susswein, a UT-Austin spokesman, said Monday that "the chancellor expressed his support for President Powers last year. Since then, they have worked together and with the regents to move UT forward and support our students."

In February, amid yet another round of rising tension at the UT System, Cigarroa announced his intention to resign later this year and become the head of pediatric transplant surgery at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio.

While the system has released the notes of multiple regents from the August executive session — the notes released only cover  the evaluation of Powers — they have sought to withhold the regent's audio recording. In a letter to the attorney general seeking permission not to release it, system officials explained why they believed the tape should be kept from the public.

"Unfettered written exchanges and dialogues help facilitate decision on policies that improve visibility, economic performance, and international prominence of UT System and its institutions," they wrote. "The ability of these individuals to opine, investigate, explore potential problems and suggest changes is an invaluable internal management tool that actively promotes constructive checks and balances throughout the system."

When asked how the system was handling the revelation that at least one such exchange had been taped without the participants' knowledge, spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said in an email, "All members of the board have been advised that executive sessions should not be recorded."

Disclosure: Paul Foster is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. James Huffines is president of PlainsCapital Bank, which was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012 and 2011. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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