Trustees | Trusteeship

Governor’s UT regent appointees ensure a more collegial relationship between board, university leade

HOUSTON CHRONICLE   |  January 24, 2017 by Lindsay Ellis

A leadership transition for the University of Texas System’s board of regents proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott would end a contentious era for the system, since the governor decided against reappointing a controversial regent and his two allies nominated by former Gov. Rick Perry.

Abbott nominated three regents on Monday who will be considered by the state Senate on Thursday. If they’re approved, the board’s changed composition would mark the end of the long clash between UT and the three outgoing Perry-appointed board members. UT Chancellor William McRaven called the governor’s regent appointees “stellar.”

Regent Wallace Hall Jr., who sued McRaven in 2015, and the other two departing regents are set to end their terms on Feb. 1. Hall, however, has urged the state Senate to delay the regents’ nomination hearing until the Texas Supreme Court rules on his lawsuit.

To replace them, Abbott nominated former UT regent and chair of the Port of Houston Authority Janiece Longoria, former state Sen. Kevin Eltife and businessman Rad Weaver.

The planned transition would tilt the board’s makeup in favor of the current governor’s regent selections. Abbott had nominated or reappointed four of the current UT regents, while Perry tapped six of them. If Abbott’s three nominees are confirmed, his regents would outnumber Perry’s seven to three.

Former regent Bobby Stillwell, a Houston businessman who served on UT’s board from 2009 to 2015, said Abbott’s appointments this week indicate that McRaven, UT at Austin President Gregory Fenves, the full board and the governor will be “like minded.”

“They’re on the same page and seeking the same outcome,” Stillwell said, a contrast to the mindset of the three outgoing regents. “It seemed to me, and I think to (other regents,) that they were advocating a change of the education model at UT-Austin.”

Tension elevated between the governor’s office and UT in 2008, when Perry, a Texas A&M University graduate, began asking Texas universities to adopt more business-like practices as tuition and student debt ballooned. He urged universities to cut back on research and asked Texas schools to come up with a $10,000 degree program.

Hall, appointed in 2011 by Perry, worked extensively to find wrongdoing by former UT President Bill Powers. In 2014, after intensive records requests that cost taxpayers about $1 million, Hall was censured as a regent and nearly impeached for allegedly abusing his power as a board member.

But his work helped uncover an admissions scandal at the system’s flagship university: Outside investigators found that top UT leaders admitted some unqualified students from 2009-2014 after high-profile alumni and influential lawmakers wrote recommendation letters on their behalf. UT, subsequently, changed its admissions protocols to ensure this wouldn’t happen anymore.

Hall – supported by other departing regents Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich – sued McRaven in 2015 to access the unredacted documents involved in this matter.

On Tuesday, Hall asked Abbott and the state Senate to hold off on the nomination hearing for new regents, citing his case which had oral arguments before the state’s top court earlier this month.

“Why rush, unless there is a preference to preempt the Supreme Court in a ruling Texans have waited years to obtain?” Hall said in a statement. “It will be unfortunate if pressure by Governor Abbott preempts a ruling by the justices that could support pro-reform practices in our state institutions.”

When Abbott last appointed UT’s regents in 2015, the state Senate held a confirmation hearing in February and confirmed them in March.

American Council of Trustees and Alumni president Michael Poliakoff said Tuesday Hall’s service to UT showed “integrity and devotion.” Regents, Poliakoff said, must “not be cheerleaders or check writers or public relations figures, (but) fiduciaries, guarding the public trust.”

“It may be hard to find others like him,” Poliakoff said in an email.

McRaven said in a Twitter post that he was “very pleased” with the regents’ nominees from Abbott and that he looked forward to working with them. The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group that backed Powers in his fight with Hall, and the high-profile alumni group Texas Exes also praised Abbott’s choices.

Longoria previously served as a UT regent from 2008-2011. Eltife is a business owner and longtime lawmaker who previously served on the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, and Weaver manages the investments of San Antonio billionaire Red McCombs, whose name is on UT’s business school.

Eltife said in an interview that his goals are to lift up the UT system while keeping a degree affordable. He said he’d like to help improve communications between the system and the legislature.

“We’re only hurting ourself and our state if we’re fighting,” Eltife said.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said in 2015 that UT should pay Hall’s legal fees, since Hall sued McRaven in his capacity as a regent. Hall’s attorney Joseph Knight said he did not expect the decision’s timing to affect the university’s responsibility for the fees. Paxton’s office and UT declined to comment Tuesday on the legal fees.

Abbott on Monday also nominated three regents to the boards of the Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University systems.

Houstonian John B. Walker, CEO of EnerVest, Ltd., and executive chair of EV Energy Partners, L.P., will serve on Texas Tech’s board, if confirmed by the state Senate on Thursday.


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