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Senate Confirms Abbott's First UT Regent Appointees

All three of Gov. Greg Abbott's University of Texas regent appointees were confirmed by the Texas Senate on Wednesday.

UT Regent nominee Steven Hicks, along with Sara Martinez Tucker and David Beck, await questions from Senate Nominations during Feb. 26, 2015 hearing.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

All three of Gov. Greg Abbott's University of Texas regent appointees were confirmed by the Texas Senate on Wednesday. 

Current UT System Regent Steve Hicks — who was reappointed by Abbott — and new appointees David Beck and Sara Martinez Tucker were confirmed by sizable majorities two weeks after being grilled by senators during their nominations hearing for more than five hours.

Martinez Tucker was the sole appointee confirmed unanimously. Three senators — Konni Burton, R-Colleyville; Bob Hall, R-Edgewood; and Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown — voted against confirming Beck. Two — Burton and Hall — voted against confirming Hicks.

Burton, a member of the Senate Nominations Committee, also voted against recommending Beck and Hicks to the full Senate. At the time, she said the two "have presided over a period of secrecy, privilege and sharp rises in tuition."

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, voted to confirm all three appointees, but he told fellow senators he would like to see more African-American appointees in the future. The UT System does not currently have any black regents.

"When I look at the board of regents of the University of Texas, it does not reflect the diversity in the state of Texas,” West said. “I look forward to the next rounds as it relates to making certain that African-Americans are reflected in the makeup of that particular board. To do anything otherwise would be unjust.”

Martinez Tucker 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 fields. Beck is a Houston trial lawyer and a former president of the UT Law School Foundation. 

The nine-member board of regents oversees nine universities and six health institutions in Texas. The regents, who aren't paid for their service, are tasked with hiring the institutions' presidents.

The board is currently weighing candidates for a president to replace Bill Powers of the University of Texas at Austin, who is leaving in June. The new regents will have the chance to weigh in on the replacement if they are sworn in before the vote, according to a spokeswoman for the UT System. The vote has not yet been scheduled. Hicks told The Texas Tribune he was sworn in by a notary public on Wednesday afternoon. It was unclear when Martinez Tucker and Beck would be sworn in; neither could be reached Wednesday afternoon.

All three appointees were criticized by Empower Texans, a conservative advocacy group spearheaded by Michael Quinn Sullivan.

The group raised objections over Martinez Tucker because of an op-ed she penned that praised Common Core, a set of K-12 education standards developed by the nation's governors and embraced by President Obama's administration. Martinez Tucker has said she viewed Common Core as a minimum goal and was glad Texas had set its own standards.

At the Nominations Committee hearing last month, lawmakers zeroed in on the role Beck played with the Law School Foundation's forgivable loan program, which was used to supplement some professors' salaries. According to a report earlier this year from Abbott when he was still attorney general, the forgivable loan program "set into motion a lack of transparency that ultimately led to a lack of accountability." Beck has attempted to distance himself from the program, saying he was unaware that the loans were not being reported to the university's president.

Also at last month's hearing, Burton had a tense exchange with Hicks over his chilly reaction to embattled Regent Wallace Hall's efforts to investigate admissions practices by requesting thousands of pages of documents. Hall's critics accused him of being on a "witch hunt" to oust Powers. Hall was eventually censured by a legislative committee.

Hall has said he was performing his duty as a regent. 

In a statement, Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education spokeswoman Jenifer Sarver praised the three newly confirmed regents.

“Regents Beck, Hicks and Martinez Tucker each bring judgment, experience, intellect and passion to the Board of Regents, and we look forward to a new path forward with their leadership,” Sarver said. “These regents will help Chancellor [William] McRaven advance the UT System past detrimental and unnecessary conflict and controversy, and toward a future focused on creating and sustaining excellence in higher education across the System’s academic and medical campuses.”

The coalition formed in response to higher education policies proposed by former Gov. Rick Perry. The group has been a supporter of Powers, and a vocal critic of Hall.

Neena Satija contributed reporting to this story.

Disclosure: Steve Hicks is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of the 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.

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