Trustees | Trusteeship

Legislature’s targeting of trustee at UT is off the mark

Regents' role should remain one that asks the tough questions
HOUSTON CHRONICLE   |  November 7, 2013 by Anne D. Neal

University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall may not be a perfect trustee, but his work on behalf of the people of Texas deserves support—not impeachment.

Impeachment is a rare sanction reserved usually for elected officials who have engaged in serious malfeasance. It is not a club to wield when there are policy differences or to intimidate appointed officials when, in good faith, they are doing their job. The Legislature has determined to target Hall, and the public should say “enough.”

Serving in this unpaid position, Hall has made mistakes. He forgot to include several matters on his disclosure form—which he has since updated—and has often been ham-fisted in his calls for and handling of information. But he is raising questions about the operations of the UT system that he is legally charged to do. Trustees are fiduciaries, not cheerleaders for the institutions. Asking tough questions is a fundamental component of the job, and administrators have an obligation to provide the data the trustees require. Hall has asked a lot of questions, and he’s become something of a gadfly for his relentless campaign for transparency. The questions Hall raises are appropriate ones. They address issues that go to the very heart of the UT System’s integrity: admissions favors for legislators’ relatives and off-the-book salaries and loans.

We can all agree: UT Austin President Bill Powers is powerful and has powerful friends. During his tenure, he’s worked diligently on UT’s behalf. Just this month, he was named chairman of the prestigious Association of American Universities and secured a $50 million dollar gift from the Moody Foundation for the College of Communications. But that does not exempt him from oversight. Powers and his team have been dragging their heels when it comes to providing information on key educational measures. It’s a board’s prerogative and obligation to examine faculty productivity, research and teaching, just as it is the board’s right to fire a president if it is unsatisfied by the answers.

It’s clear that higher education is facing unprecedented challenges of quality and cost. The days of unengaged, disconnected trustees are over and we know from sad experience what happens when trustees fail to question the status quo. Take a look at Penn State, where the trustees were marginalized in the governance process. Or the University of Hawaii, where the trustees’ failure to provide proper oversight allowed the university president virtual free rein that resulted in scandal and costly legal fees.

Rather than impeaching trustees for asking questions, the legislatures in Pennsylvania and Hawaii are pressing trustees to be more involved. Both the Pennsylvania Legislature and Pennsylvania Auditor General demanded the end of the Penn State president’s voting rights and expansive powers. The Hawaii Senate Committee examining the University outlined its expectation that “the Board of Regents … be diligent in its duties and responsibilities … to question the University’s administration when necessary … it should not merely approve all of the university administration’s recommendations without conducting its own due diligence.”

Legislators in Hawaii and Pennsylvania aren’t fooled: They understand that there is an imbalance in power on our campuses that impedes proper oversight. Tenured faculty, let us remember, last forever, but trustees only for a designated term. And university presidents? They wield immense “patronage” power – the football box, tickets, alumni awards, membership in professional associations—that allows them to call in chits when they are challenged. Indeed, that appears to be what is happening.

Just this summer, Texas legislators attempted, unsuccessfully, to micromanage important personnel decisions by eliminating the trustees’ ability to fire a president without approval from an administrator. Even now, it appears Texas legislators are demanding that the board take no action against Powers for the duration of legislative committee hearings examining Hall’s actions, the next of which is Wednesday.

In Texas and other states, there is a growing debate about the future of public higher education: whether it should be privatized; how much tuitions should increase; and whether public flagships can and should limit access by in-state students. Now more than ever, it’s important that trustees – appointed by the governor and, thus, the only campus insiders accountable to the people – be encouraged to address these challenging issues, not shrink from them.


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