Almost six hours of inquisition of Greg Abbott’s nominees for the University of Texas Board of Regents ended with the Senate Nominations Committee effectively turning the trio into political hostages by not voting.
Perhaps it was nothing more than a desire by senators to digest extensive testimony from nominees Steven Hicks and David Beck on their roles in the university controversy over favoritism in admissions and supplemental funding from an outside foundation of law professors, or nominee Sara Martinez Tucker’s support for national education standards known as Common Core. But usually a governor, especially a new governor, sees his board of regent nominees pass quickly through the advice and consent process to confirmation.
These nominees represent something more than just a shadow of scandal. In selecting these three, Abbott seems to have given a nod of conciliation to the UT alumni and the business/legal conservative wing of the Republican Party over the tea party social conservatives who had fought to oust UT-Austin President Bill Powers and break the status quo. Powers is stepping down after the current legislative session.
Social conservatives have been backing regent Wallace Hall in his investigations of Powers and the University of Texas. Hall has been the subject of an attempted House impeachment trial and a criminal investigation. But Hall’s supporters have claimed he was vindicated by an investigation conducted for the UT regents and another done by Abbott when he was state attorney general.
Ultimately, all three of Abbott’s regent nominees likely will receive committee approval and Senate confirmation. By leaving them pending, however, senators can negotiate behind the scenes for other appointments yet to be named or agreements on Legislation. And there is no immediate harm in the delay because the three regents whose terms expire this month continue to serve until their successors are confirmed.
Hicks and Beck received the toughest grilling from the senators because of their direct involvement in the scandal.
One sign that anger remains over the fact Powers could not be forced to immediately resign his post was repeated questions from Nominations Chair Brian Birdwell over whether Powers could be kept out of the admissions process for next fall’s entering class. “I’m not making an accusation that there is abuse going on now,” Birdwell said, even if that was the implication of his questions. “I don’t see how you keep a current president from having some role in the admission process,” Hicks replied.
An investigation of admission practices found regents were submitting 50 to 60 names of potential students to the admissions office every year. In one case in 2012, a regent mistakenly informed a family that their student had been admitted when the student had not. The regent then insisted the student receive an admission, which was granted.
Under questioning from Senator Konni Burton, Hicks categorically denied being that unnamed regent. “I think it is very inappropriate,” Hicks said. The regent nominee said Chancellor William McRaven is working on creating new firewalls to protect the admissions process.
Beck came under fire for his role in establishing a forgiveable loan program as president of the University of Texas Law School Foundation. The intent of the program was to attract and retain faculty, and the first recipient was then-law school Dean Powers. Over time, the salary supplements became controversial because they were not reported to the university as compensation and because they were going disproportionately to white, male professors.
“Why was it so secretive,” Senator Charles Schwertner asked Beck.
“I respectfully disagree that it was intended to be secretive,” Beck replied. “We assumed it was going all the way up the chain of command.”
Beck said it was the fault of Dean Larry Sager and the law school staff that the compensation was not reported to the UT president’s office or the system. At one point, he blurted out in frustration, “How could I know what I didn’t know?”
He also denied ever having influenced admissions at UT “ I couldn’t get my daughter into the University of Texas Law School. So, obviously, I don’t have any influence,” Beck said.
Beck’s Houston-based law firm, Beck Redden LLP, has represented UT in a number of lawsuits, including one brought by the female professors against the law school. He pledged that if he is confirmed his law firm would withdraw from all business with UT.
Tucker experienced a different grilling from the social conservatives on the committee for her participation in the development and promotion of a national elementary and secondary education program called Common Core. Texas, under former Governor Rick Perry, rejected participation in the national curriculum program. But Tucker found herself opposed by representatives of Empower Texans and the Texas Eagle Forum.
Tucker was an undersecretary of education under former President George W. Bush and currently is CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative. She demonstrated herself knowledgeable of state and national education issues and adeptly deflected questions about her support of Common Core.
“I applaud Common Core,” Tucker boldly said, but added, “It’s a floor in my opinion, not a ceiling.”
When Birdwell asked Tucker whether she could influence the college curriculum, without hesitation she answered that the faculty senate at the university campuses set the curriculum, not the regents. “It has nothing to do with higher education,” Tucker said.
(Photo of UT regent nominees Sara Martinez Tucker, Steven Hicks and David Beck/ By Bob Daemmirch)