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Foster: UT Community Needs to "Re-establish Some Decorum"

A fraught week culminated in a relatively collegial meeting of the UT System Board of Regents on Thursday, after which Chairman Paul Foster said it was time for the board and UT community to "re-establish some decorum."

UT System Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa and Board of Regents Chairman Paul L. Foster as UT Regents study tuition increases on May 14, 2014.

A fraught week culminated in a relatively collegial meeting of the University of Texas System Board of Regents on Thursday, after which Chairman Paul Foster said it was time for the board and extended UT community to "re-establish some decorum."

Less than a week before the meeting, news broke that UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa had asked University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers to agree to step down at the end of October or face termination at Thursday's board meeting. Powers countered with an offer to resign in June after the upcoming legislative session.

On Wednesday, after some tension-filled days, the chancellor accepted Powers' resignation effective June 2. At Thursday's meeting, instead of calling for the president's termination, Cigarroa said Powers had "a very superb tenure and will continue to have a superb tenure as president."

Foster, who plans to begin the search process for Powers' replacement next month, said the plan would allow for a smooth transition of leadership at the university. He praised the chancellor and president for reaching a "collaborative resolution to a much-publicized and highly charged conflict."

He then proceeded to make public entreaties to board members, university leaders, lawmakers and alumni groups to be on their best behavior "as we close this chapter and move forward."

Foster asked that regents work with each other respectfully and allow the chancellor and university presidents the freedom and flexibility to implement the policies set by the board. He asked university leaders to recognize the authority and responsibilities of the board and chancellor and to cooperate fully with regents and system staff. He asked that alumni groups not send threatening or disparaging messages to the chancellor when they disagree with his decisions. He asked that lawmakers allow the board to "do our jobs unimpeded."

"I do not feel it is appropriate for the Legislature to try to influence personnel actions at one of our institutions," he said, apparently referring to lawmakers who protested the possible firing of the UT-Austin president.

Afterward, Foster told reporters that his remarks were not meant as a rebuke of a legislative investigation into one of the board members, Regent Wallace Hall. Hall, Powers' fiercest adversary, has been accused of abusing his power in pursuit of information about possible wrongdoing in Powers' administration. Hall has denied any wrongdoing and said he was fulfilling the oversight duties of a regent.

"I don't presume to tell them how to do their business," Foster said of the legislative committee. "That is their business."

The co-chairs of that legislative committee sent the chairman a letter this week reminding him that firing Powers would be inconsistent with directives they had previously made to ensure no negative employment action was taken against potential witnesses to their impeachment investigation.

Foster said he was pleased with the current situation, though going forward, he wants the different parties in this case to behave "as a board should behave and as a system and state should behave."

Cigarroa confirmed to reporters that he had received "voluminous non-constructive emails" in the last week related to his deliberations over Powers.

Foster's remarks to the board got the approval of Regent Alex Cranberg, who agreed that it was time for the parties to "put their swords down and start trying to look to the future."

"There's a lot of change coming, but I think it's generally positive," Foster said. Like Powers, Cigarroa plans to step down in the near future, and the next governor will appoint three new regents next year. 

Also at Thursday's meeting, Cigarroa proposed admissions policy changes that will be implemented systemwide in hopes of ensuring that the system's institutions are following best practices in admissions. They included publicly posting the criteria to be considered in admissions reviews, not considering any letters of recommendation not submitted through the proper channels and having admissions committees large enough to mitigate the possible effects of outside influence.

The chancellor recently announced a plan to launch an external investigation of admissions at UT-Austin following allegations of undue political influence in the process. An initial limited review conducted by system officials concluded that there was no evidence of individual wrongdoing but that there was "sufficient reason for concern" to warrant review and revisions of system policies.

Cigarroa said at Thursday's meeting that the request for Powers' resignation was unrelated to the admissions issue. In a statement on Monday, he attributed his decision to "a breakdown of communication, collegiality, trust and a willingness to work together."

He elaborated on his motivations somewhat on Thursday, telling reporters, "it was not one particular issue. From my perspective, it's the issue of, can we trust each other with communication without it going viral. It's really hard to have a productive relationship when a chancellor and a president can't have a discussion on sensitive matters. Sometimes those sensitive matters may not be easy, and when it gets to the newspapers everywhere, it's hard to get to a productive place."

At the meeting, Cigarroa also reviewed policies relating to providing complimentary tickets to university sporting events, noting that providing standing invitations to suites is not a best practice. Regents also approved new system policies to ensure that the maintenance of education records and the access granted to those records complies with federal laws regarding student privacy.

Student privacy laws have been a hot topic in recent discussions. Hall's receipt and handling of records with private student information has been a focal point in both the ongoing legislative investigation into his activities and one being conducted by Travis County prosecutors. An outside lawyer for the UT System has said that Hall's purposes for reviewing the documents were legitimate and that there is no evidence the regent broke any laws.

The legislative committee is currently drafting articles of impeachment against Hall and is expected to convene later this month to discuss them further.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster is a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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