Hours of testimony before the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations on Wednesday yielded new insights into the goings-on in the University of Texas community, new options for the committee and a palpable sense of desire for its impeachment probe of UT System Regent Wallace Hall to reach a conclusion.
Committee co-chair Dan Flynn, R-Van, told reporters after the meeting, which included a roughly two-hour executive session, that he believed members were "very close" to reaching consensus on a final outcome. The committee plans to meet again on Aug. 11.
For more than a year, the committee has been investigating Hall, who has been accused of abusing his power while investigating the UT-Austin administration. Members are currently in the process of drafting articles of impeachment against him. Hall has denied any wrongdoing, and said he has an obligation as a regent to expose problems within the university.
On Wednesday, the committee heard testimony from UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster and Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Pedro Reyes. Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who now serves as president of the Texas Exes, the flagship university’s alumni association, was invited to testify but declined due to a scheduling conflict. The meeting also included a two-hour executive session.
The three in attendance were asked about their relationships with University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers, the plans for an investigation into the admissions process at that university, their assessment of Hall and more.
Afterward, committee co-chair Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said she felt the witnesses were forthcoming and that there was a clear "desire to move forward on their part, and certainly on our part."
Earlier this month, after years of tension between the system, the university and the board of regents, Cigarroa asked Powers to agree to resign in October or face possible termination at a July 1o board meeting. Ultimately, Cigarroa accepted Powers' proposed resignation date of June 2, 2015 – following the 2015 legislative session.
Cigarroa’s ultimatum irked some committee members, who had instructed the board multiple times not to take any adverse employment actions against individuals who might be witnesses in their investigation into Hall. Committee members said past inquiries into other state agencies had been hindered by abrupt personnel changes.
The chancellor said he did not ignore the committee’s letters. Foster added that the committee’s desires likely had a “significant impact” on the outcome of a December 2013 meeting when Powers’ job was on the line. At that time, Cigarroa recommended that the president keep his job.
Cigarroa told the committee that his demand for Powers to resign was not motivated by a belief that the president had broken rules or failed to meet performance metrics. He attributed it to a lack of trust and an inability to discuss sensitive matters “without it going public and actually adding to the strife, which has become a national issue.”
State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, asked Cigarroa if it was possible in higher education for an individual to be so recalcitrant that it was necessary to end their employment. Cigarroa said yes.
Foster later said that with many statements on Wednesday, the name “Powers” could be swapped out for “Hall” and remain true. The chairman, who asked Hall to resign earlier this year, reiterated that he did not think Hall had done anything wrong, but had become the focus of so much negative attention.
Asked about an external investigation Cigarroa has called to review the role of legislative influence in UT-Austin admissions, the chancellor said he wanted to clear up allegations of an “unhealthy relationship” between UT-Austin administrators and the head of admissions. He said he did not know if the allegations had merit.
Until this week, Kedra Ishop has served as the university’s director of admissions. But earlier this summer, she announced that she was taking a job with more responsibilities at the University of Michigan. UT-Austin officials said the move was unrelated to the ongoing tensions with the system.
Earlier this year, Hall tried to schedule a meeting with Ishop to discuss admissions practices. Cigarroa and Foster both objected to the idea, arguing that it would be perceived as an interrogation.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Cigarroa and Foster revealed that the reason the meeting never happened is because the Travis County district attorney’s office intervened, pointing out that Ishop was a potential witness in a criminal investigation that office is conducting into Hall’s handling of protected student information.
Exactly what the committee decides to do with all the information provided on Wednesday — and in the many hearings that preceded it — remains to be seen.
State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, reminded his fellow committee members that they “may pursue multiple avenues,” including ones that don’t necessarily involve impeachment. He asked the members to consider issuing a public reprimand of Hall that also outlined how the committee believes regents could do their jobs more effectively.
At one point in the meeting, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, suggested it might be more effective to write up best practices for all university system regents rather than writing articles of impeachment specifically against Hall.
State Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who was the lone vote against a previous motion stating that grounds to impeach Hall existed, expressed concern about setting a precedent in which the Legislature micromanages state agencies.
Flynn said his hope is that a resolution can be reached that is “a win-win for everyone.”
“We’re going to continue to look at every option,” Flynn told reporters, emphasizing that there were options besides impeachment. “We’ll be looking at some of those.”
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.