UPDATE: On Tuesday, April 16, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education responded to comments Regent Wallace Hall made about the group in this interview. We have posted the letter in its entirety below the interview.
Texas Monthly: Let’s start with the events of Thursday morning, when the UT System Board of Regents voted unanimously to do two things: turn over all materials requested by the Legislature and to ask the attorney general to conduct the investigation of the Law School Foundation at the University of Texas at Austin, which had been recommended by members of the Legislature. What is the significance of those votes as it relates to the direction of the board?
Wallace Hall: To me, the board’s direction has not really changed. We’re still looking to do our job and to do it fully. In regard to the legislative request and the Texas Public Information Act request, it has been our desire to be forthcoming and to be transparent. The requests are for copious amounts of information, and we wanted to comply fully. It was always our intent to provide the documentation that we are required to provide. There have been concerns on my part—I am speaking for myself and not for the board—that we make sure to handle the information in a sensitive way. The Legislature doesn’t fully understand what we’re about to give them. We have issues—HIPAA, FERPA—that are ancillary to what I think they want to see, and we need to make sure that we treat that information according. There is certainly information in there that could chill the investigation if it is widely disseminated.
In regard to the decision to ask the attorney general to take over the investigation, this has gone on longer than any of us would have liked. All of us want it resolved, frankly. We have confidence that the attorney general will do a great job. I don’t know how long it will take, but I hope it’s as quick as the external investigation was going to be.
TM: Do you see any substantive difference between an external investigation and an investigation by the Attorney General’s office? At the regents meeting on March 20, there was a contentious 4-3 to set aside the original report, conducted by UT System general counsel Barry Burgdorf, and pursue an outside review. Vice Chairman Steven Hicks was vocal about not authorizing another review, saying that it was akin to “beating a dead horse.” He also said that he felt that the intention of investigation was to place the blame at the feet of President Bill Powers.
Hall: I would like to see that when we have an investigation, that we handle it in a similar way for all of our institutions. We don’t want to be wrongly or rightly accused of doing something one way for a school and another way for another school. Some people will say it means something that the attorney general is involved instead of an investigative firm from New York, and there are optics to that.
I would disagree obviously with Steve on this issue because we all don’t have the same level of information. There was a fair amount of press about the split vote, but it doesn’t concern me to have a split vote. It actually concerned me more when I came on the board and learned there hadn’t been a no vote in ten years. I’d be more concerned that the regents didn’t challenge each other.
TM: The conventional wisdom going into Thursday’s meeting was that if the board voted unanimously on both of these issues, it was a sign that there was an effort to smooth over relations with the Legislature. Is that an accurate reading?
Hall: On Wednesday I spent the day over at the Legislature meeting with a number of members, which was very productive. They learned things from us, and I certainly learned things from them. Unquestionably, we would like to smooth things over with the Legislature, because it’s not productive for the UT System or for their efforts to govern. We have great respect for what they do, and we’re trying to find a path through these choppy waters. We share the same goal.
TM: Of course, lawmakers may not see it that way. The volume from the Capitol has steadily increased during the session, and it has been directed at the board in general and at you specifically.
Hall: I think there has been confusion by some members on what our role is. I don’t believe that we have any confusion about what our job is, and the level of unhappiness from there is new to me. They have the power to do what they want to do, though I trust they will be sensitive to the unintended consequences that affect this board’s ability—and the ability of future boards—to manage our system. But in terms of the accusations, specifically which one?
TM: On the floor of the Senate, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst said that the board was engaging in the “character assassination” of President Powers, and at the Joint Oversight Committee, House Appropriations chair Jim Pitts said that the board was engaged in “witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt.” And that doesn’t include specific amendments and bills that would affect funding and governance of the board.
Hall: I would say that I have a growing and expanding mea culpa in not appreciating their need for communication from the board. I get that now. I did not recognize our need to be over there and talking to them.
TM: This was part of the reason for your meetings at the Lege last week with Regent Brenda Pejovich?
Hall: Yes, absolutely, as well with Chairman Pitts the week before. In regard to some of the accusations that have been thrown out, I don’t believe there has been a witch hunt. I believe that we are trying to execute our duties as regents to the best of our abilities.