Editor's note: This story has been updated.
With both sides digging in their heels and adamantly disagreeing over state law, the dispute over whether University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall can have access to confidential student information appears more likely than ever to land in court.
That much was made clear in a pair of letters between Attorney General Ken Paxton and the UT System. On Monday, Paxton told UT officials that they were breaking state law and should give Hall the records he seeks, or be prepared to pay for Hall's attorney so he can sue to obtain them.
“If the System and regents complied with the requirements of state law,” Paxton wrote, “this litigation would be unnecessary.”
Tuesday, UT's lawyers wrote back, signaling the schools intention to ignore Paxton’s advice.
“Please understand that we do not have authority to pay for outside counsel under these circumstances,” the letter said. “For that reason, U.T. System cannot approve any vouchers submitted for that purpose.”
The exchange further muddies the debate on Hall’s ongoing efforts to see records that might show which students might have been admitted to UT-Austin because of political connections.
If the two sides go to court to settle the fight, the case would be entangled in a web of conflicting loyalties and duties.
Here’s the situation: As a regent, Hall would be suing the institution that he is charged with overseeing. Hall's lawyer’s fees might – or might not –be paid by the institution he is suing. And the top legal representative of the state, Paxton, who is often charged with defending state agencies in lawsuits, would have publicly taken the side of the person who is suing the state. On top of that, Hall is a big financial supporter of the attorney general, donating more than $30,000 to Paxton’s campaigns in recent years.
All of the participants in the tussle declined to comment Tuesday. Hall has not publicly said whether or not he plans to sue, though he has shown no signs of backing down in recent months.
He has been an outspoken critic of UT System leadership for years, especially at the flagship UT-Austin. The current dispute is over whether he can see records used to compile 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 were admitted with the help of former UT-Austin president Bill Powers. But it didn’t say who those students are or what their connections were. Hall hasn’t said why he wants that information.
He first asked for the documents on March 6, and – due to a special board policy at the time – only needed two regents to sign off on that 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, Chancellor William 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 Paxton. The attorney general said in a letter last month that regents shouldn't be denied information, even confidential information that helps them do their jobs. But the letter didn't appear to specifically order the system to turn over the documents.
At its next meeting, the Board of Regents changed its rules for releasing information and once again denied Hall's request. Now, a majority of the board must approve regents' information requests, not just two members.
In Monday’s letter, Paxton made his opinion clear. He said the new regents’ rule violated state law. And he said regents should have access to confidential information if it helps the regents do their jobs. But the system has stuck to its argument that the student information isn’t necessary for Hall to do his job.
Tuesday afternoon, the system released e-mails in which Chancellor Bill McRaven makes his case. He tells Hall that Hall doesn’t need access to student names to adequately review the admissions policies. He says the system is working to release more information about the Kroll report, but that it won’t include students’ grades, which are considered private under federal law.
“Let me also make clear that we are not maintaining anything in secrecy,” McRaven wrote to Hall on May 27. “We are merely following the law and protecting student information.”
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.