Conservative state senators grilled Gov. Greg Abbott's appointees to the University of Texas System Board of Regents for more than five hours on Thursday, publicly rehashing the drama that has plagued the system's flagship university in recent years.
The Senate Committee on Nominations did not vote Thursday on whether to recommend the regents to the full Senate; it'll do so at a later date. But senators presented a tough line of questioning for UT System Regent Steve Hicks — whom Abbott has reappointed — and new appointees David Beck and Sara Martinez Tucker.
The appointment process has exposed the first real daylight between Abbott, the new governor, and conservative activists like the group Empower Texans, which has expressed opposition to all three appointees.
Chairman Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, kicked off the questioning of Hicks, who has served since 2009, with criticism of recent leaks to news outlets on the possible candidates to fill the University of Texas at Austin presidency.
“We got to stop being comfortable with this being okay,” Birdwell said. “If we want to be taken serious, we got to act serious.” Hicks, who said he was not the leak, added that when so many people are involved in a search, it becomes hard to keep word from getting out.
Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, had a tense exchange with Hicks over the rights of a regent to request public information. It was a reference to the chilly reception UT System Regent Wallace Hall received from Hicks and some other regents when he made sweeping open records requests of UT-Austin.
“If somebody is wanting to find out more information, and they’re allowed to do that, are you in opposition to that? As an individual regent, shouldn’t they be allowed?” Burton asked.
“I think every single individual regent should be able to ask questions and get answers,” Hicks replied. "Should they be able to see hundreds of thousand of documents? I think that’s where we get into an area where we need to come up with a practical solution.”
Burton also zeroed in on Hicks' decision in 2013 to vote against the board’s majority in seeking another review of the Law School Foundation’s forgivable loan program. According to a report from the Texas attorney general's office earlier this year, the forgivable loan program, which was used to supplement some professors' salaries, "set into motion a lack of transparency that ultimately led to a lack of accountability." Burton asked Hicks how he “justified” voting against a more in-depth review.
Hicks pointed out that the Board of Regents already had a report from its general counsel.
“I was satisfied that we had gotten to the bottom of the problem and had taken the correct actions to fix it,” Hicks said.
Lawmakers also hammered at Beck, a lawyer and new Abbott appointee who served as president of the UT Law School Foundation from 2002 to 2006. Beck was in that position when the first forgivable loan was given.
Beck attempted to distance himself from the program, saying the foundation had relied on the law school dean and staff to report the loans “up the chain of command.” Beck said he was unaware during that time that the loans were not being reported the university's president.
“I find that very difficult to believe,” Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, told Beck.
Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, asked Beck if he had anything to do with a statement almost a year ago from the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education that called for Hall’s resignation. Beck was a founding member of the coalition, which has been critical of Hall, but he said he did not have anything to do with that statement.
The committee spent less time questioning Martinez Tucker, who served as the U.S. undersecretary of education in President George W. Bush’s administration, and recently became CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit focused on improving performance in science, technology, engineering and math.
Many questions directed at her were about her public statements on Common Core, a set of K-12 education standards developed by the nation’s governors and embraced by President Obama’s administration. Forty-three states adopted the standards, and they have become a favorite punching bag for conservatives.
Martinez Tucker said she was “thrilled” Texas was not pursuing Common Core.
“It’s a floor, in my opinion. It’s not a ceiling,” she said.
Taylor asked her to promise not to use her position as a regent to advance Common Core — and she did.
Lawmakers spent significant time questioning all three appointees on the recent Kroll Report, an external review of UT-Austin that found that regents and lawmakers had attempted to influence admissions decisions. All three appointees said they would support a "firewall" that would add some distance between the admissions office and outside recommendations for applicants.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education was a corporate sponsor in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.