Even after an attorney general’s ruling in his favor this week and approval last month by the University of Texas System governing board, Regent Wallace Hall still won’t be getting access to confidential student information he is seeking related to UT-Austin’s admissions process.
System officials notified Hall at Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting that he can’t have the information because giving it out violates federal privacy laws. Soon after, regents voted to change their policies to require a majority to approve information requests the chancellor opposes.
Chancellor Bill McRaven told Hall that he could have redacted information about admissions. But it’s unclear whether Hall will accept that offer. He declined to comment as he left Thursday’s meeting.
Hall has been asking for the student information since the release of a report by Kroll Associates that found that dozens of students with powerful connections and questionable grades had been admitted into UT-Austin in recent years.
The report said that some of those students got in with the help of UT-Austin president Bill Powers. But it didn’t say who those students are or who their connections were.
Hall hasn’t said why he wants the information, but has publicly called for the exposure of the powerful people who may have helped the students get into school.
Hall first asked for the documents on March 6, but McRaven and board chairman Paul Foster raised concerns. A special board policy approved last year required two regents to sign off on such a request. The board called a special meeting for April 8, and three of the nine regents voted to grant Hall’s request.
One week later, McRaven emailed Hall and told him that he wasn’t giving him the documents because he had declared the investigation into admissions closed. McRaven also said that students’ admission documents are confidential, and Hall didn’t have an “educational purpose” in accessing them.
That led Hall to request help from Attorney General Ken Paxton, who received more than $30,000 in campaign donations from Hall in recent years. Paxton said in a letter last week that regents shouldn't be denied information, even confidential information, that helps them do their jobs.
But Paxton’s letter didn’t specifically order the system to hand over the information. And system leaders appear to have interpreted it to mean that Hall's request might not meet Paxton’s guidelines.
Meanwhile, regents voted 6-3 to make it easier to deny an individual regent’s information request. Supporters of the change said it didn’t make sense to require only two regents to sign off on the release of information. That should be up to the majority of the board, they said.
“It was nonsensical to me then; it’s nonsensical to me now,” said Regent Steve Hicks, who supported the change.
The three opponents of the change – Hall, Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich – said they worried that the new rule could freeze out regents in the minority. Cranberg mentioned Hall as an example. Hall’s actions haven't been popular among a majority of the board, Cranberg said, but they have led to policy changes and investigations into admissions and purchasing.
“The lone voice of the prickly, difficult questioner must be respected and accepted,” Cranberg said.
“I do believe that this amendment in particular is designed to thwart regents from their ability to perform their fiduciary duty,” Hall said. “I think that is absolutely wrong. That does not serve the people of Texas.”
McRaven took issue with those criticisms. He said he gets requests for information every day from regents. In almost all of those occasions, he replies fully and promptly, he said.
The policy only deals with burdensome or legally questionable requests, he said.
“I am happy to answer and provide access on awkward questions and it is my responsibility to do so,” he said. “And I bear that responsibility very seriously.”
Disclosure: Steve Hicks is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster has been a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.