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To What Degree Should Regents Get Involved?

Texas law isn't specific about how public university system regents should do their jobs. So regents are largely left to interpret their roles themselves. With some taking a more hands-on approach, debate has grown about the role of regents.

Members listen to committee reports at the Board of Regents meeting for The University of Texas System on Feb. 14, 2013.

There were no specific orders to follow this year when Ron Hammonds was appointed to the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents. There was just a short conversation with the man who appointed him: Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott “told me he expected me to execute my duties with the highest integrity and do my best to help make a great institution, Texas Tech, even better,” Hammonds said.

Those broad instructions might thrill the people who have complained for years about what they considered to be meddling by regents appointed by Abbott’s predecessor, Gov. Rick Perry. But they also highlight what little guidance regents can receive.

State law isn't specific about how to do the job. It says boards of regents are expected to provide financial oversight, make limited high-level hiring decisions and “exercise the traditional and time-honored role for such boards as their role has evolved in the United States.” So regents are largely left to using their personal experience and political philosophies to figure out what that means. And some board members in recent years have taken a more hands-on approach, pushing for radical changes and digging up scandals at some of Texas’ most prominent schools.

Those actions have raised questions about how regents should view their role and how involved they should be in the universities they oversee. Lawmakers and faculty have debated that for years. Lately, the circle of people weighing in has expanded. And many are calling for new rules to limit what regents can do. 

“Good public policy is important regardless of which personalities are in elected or appointed office,” said Jenifer Sarver, spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, one of the most outspoken advocates for stricter regent guidelines.

“Legislation to strengthen the quality, training and standards for our regents can only be beneficial to all of our institutions of higher learning, and the taxpayers who help fund those institutions should demand it."

But some current and former regents warn against such changes, which they say would weaken regents. Doing that would weaken oversight at some of the state's most important institutions, they say. 

Past Turmoil

The debate about regents has been most heated at Texas’ two most prestigious public schools, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.

In College Station, many members of the faculty were enraged in 2011 with Texas A&M University System regents’ support for a series of reforms known as the “seven breakthrough solutions.” Those market-driven ideas, pushed by Perry, aimed to make tuition less expensive and treat students more like customers. That year, more than 530 faculty members signed a letter to the regents opposing the suggestions. Some of the ideas, like adding new metrics to measure teaching ability, were implemented. Others, like putting state funding for schools directly in the hands of students, weren't. 

Meanwhile, A&M’s leadership routinely clashed with system leadership. One president, Elsa Murano, resigned under pressure after complaints that she wasn't moving fast enough to push through regent-supported initiatives. Her successor, R. Bowen Loftin, also resigned, saying he wanted to spend more time with students. He was paid a reported $850,000 in the separation and quickly took a job as chancellor at the University of Missouri, casting doubt on whether his exit was voluntary. 

Loftin's replacement, Michael K. Young, is expected to take over in May. 

At UT-Austin, Bill Powers survived years of turmoil as the university’s president. But his job seemed almost constantly at risk.

One UT regent critical of Powers, Wallace Hall, has become a key focus in the debate over a regent’s role. Hall has been accused of leading a “witch hunt” against Powers and top administrators for his repeated requests for information and documents from the university and the system.

Those requests have generated hundreds of thousands of pages and taken up considerable time for university employees. But they have also raised numerous questions about governance at the UT System’s flagship school.

Hall raised alarm about the existence of a forgivable loan program for faculty at the UT law school. That program has since been shut down. And his inquires helped lead to an investigation of UT-Austin admissions that found that a few dozen students had been admitted into the school with Powers' help and against the advice of the admissions office. Some of those students were found to have had political connections.

Powers is leaving office in June. He will be replaced by the current UT-Austin provost, Greg Fenves. 

Hall became the focus of numerous investigations himself. A House panel considered impeaching him, though it only ended up censuring him. And a grand jury considered criminal charges against him for his handling of confidential student information.

The grand jury declined to indict Hall, but it did release an unusual report on March 31 that criticized him. That report suggested that the system remove him and change its rules to prevent one-man investigations.

Attempts to Change the Rules

Some legislators, meanwhile, have proposed reforms of their own. In 2013, state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed a bill that would make it impossible for regents to fire a university president without first receiving a recommendation from the system chancellor. The bill also would have implemented a rule that regents couldn’t “unreasonably or unduly interfere with day-to-day operations” at the schools they oversaw.

The bill, which passed the House and the Senate, was vetoed by Perry, who called it a “step in the wrong direction.”

“History has taught us that the lack of board oversight in both the corporate and university settings diminishes accountability and provides fertile ground for organizational malfeasance,” he said.

This legislative session, Seliger is resuscitating his bill in hopes that Abbott will feel differently. The Senate Higher Education Committee approved this year’s version last month, but the full Senate hasn’t considered it.

On Wednesday, the Senate approved Senate Bill 24, by Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would require regents to take an intensive online training course within a year of their appointment. The course would include information about the “limitations on the authority of the governing board” and would need to be completed before voting on a budget or personnel matter.

Abbott hasn’t weighed in on either bill, though he said before he was elected governor that he didn’t want regents “micromanaging.”

“Governor Abbott will consider any proposal passed by the Legislature with the goal of making Texas better,” said spokeswoman Cait Meisenheimer. 

Meanwhile, the University of Texas System regents could take matters in their own hands. The board currently has a rule that two regents need to sign off on a member’s request for information if the chancellor doesn’t approve. The board might consider adjusting that rule at its next meeting so that a majority of the nine-member board is needed to sign off. 

Killing Oversight?

Hall and his supporters have argued that those changes would be a bad idea. On Monday, Hall’s attorney sent a letter asking Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on regents' rights to access to information. 

Regents have a responsibility to their schools, the letter said, and keeping information from them would weaken their oversight. Besides, the letter said, university and system officials work for the regents. They might not have a legal right to deny a regent’s request, the letter said.

The letter followed an email exchange between Hall and UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven in which McRaven denied Hall's requests for large amounts of information, including student records. Hall was asking for supporting documents used in the investigation of UT-Austin admissions. McRaven said that investigation was closed, according to emails released by the system.

"In my opinion your request goes beyond any reasonable desire to be better informed as a regent," McRaven wrote. 

That kind of denial by McRaven, who took over as chancellor in January, highlights a shift in system leadership about how to comply with an individual regent's request. The growing desire to clamp down on those requests has worried a few of Hall's current and former colleagues. 

In a letter opposing Seliger’s bill last month, former UT System board chairman Gene Powell warned lawmakers that limiting regents’ oversight powers could leave schools susceptible to scandal. Such persistence of regents has been valuable at UT-Austin, Powell wrote. Problems at the law school and admissions office wouldn’t have come to light without it, he said. 

“Rather than writing legislation that adds unnecessary governance language,” Powell wrote, “I propose that the Legislature should be applauding and encouraging regents to work harder.”

But Hammonds, one of 12 regents whom Abbott has appointed since taking office, said he doesn’t see anything in the recent proposals that would affect his ability to do his job. If regents suspect wrongdoing at a school, they should investigate together as a board, he said. 

“I believe that a regent should have very little involvement in day-to-day operations,” he said. “Our job is to make policy and provide direction in a broad manner and then monitor how that policy and direction are being executed.”

Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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