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Committee Approves Bill Restricting Regents' Authority

A bill that reins in the power of university regents was approved by a Texas Senate committee Wednesday morning. A similar piece of legislation was vetoed last session.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, pauses during a discussion on redistricting on the Senate floor May 19, 2011.

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

A bill that reins in the power of university regents was unanimously approved by a Texas Senate panel Wednesday morning.

The measure passed by the Senate Committee on Higher Education — Senate Bill 117 by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo — would require a recommendation from a university system's chancellor before regents can fire a university president. The state House and Senate passed a similar bill in 2013, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

Last session's proposal came at a time of conflict between state legislators and the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Lawmakers believed some regents were attempting to push out, or even fire, University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers. 

In letters sent to the Senate committee this week — after the deadline for public testimony — UT System regents Wallace Hall and Alex Cranberg and former regents Gene Powell and Charles Miller objected to the bill.

Legislators have accused Hall of micromanaging UT-Austin while he investigated accusations of undue influence on the admissions process. Hall, who has said he was doing his duty as a regent, was investigated, threatened with impeachment and eventually censured by a legislative committee. 

In their letters dated Tuesday, the current and former regents warned that the bill could discourage future regents from investigating potential wrongdoing. Hall called the bill a “Trojan horse,” and said the bill was tied to the committee that investigated him. 

“For transparency to truly exist, individual board members of our institutions must have unfettered access to information and be encouraged to challenge the status quo,” Hall wrote. 

Cranberg wrote that had the bill already been law, Hall might have been impeached.

“Please let us get past this unfortunate time in the history of the University and not compound the current climate of mistrust by passing SB177,” Cranberg wrote.

On WednesdaySen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, tacked on an amendment that struck out a section of the bill that said “the governing board of an institution of higher education may not unreasonably or unduly interfere with the day-to-day operations of the institutions under its governance."

Seliger, chairman of the committee, accepted the amendment. But when the bill was first considered by the committee last week, Seliger defended that language, saying it was directly from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, had warned Seliger she could not support the bill if that language was in it, saying it impeded transparency. 

On Wednesday, Seliger said he accepted that amendment because it would not prevent a board of regents from restricting unreasonable interference. 

"In the end, the arbiter of what is undue or needless or extreme is going to be that board of regents,” Seliger said. “I do not see how this amendment compromises a board’s ability to do just that — dictate what is unreasonable or undue interference.” 

Seliger's bill now heads to the full Senate.

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

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Wallace Hall Letter

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William Powell Letter

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Alex Cranberg Letter

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Charles Miller Letter

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Thomas Lindsay Letter
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