Policymakers | Trusteeship

Lindsay: UT regent case muddies right to transparency

Public institutions should not ignore fact-finding requests
HOUSTON CHRONICLE   |  April 23, 2014 by Thomas Lindsay

Amid the cacophony over whether University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall will be impeached or even jailed, let’s take a moment to remember what this is all about.

The Texas House Special Committee on Transparency, which meets today, is investigating Hall for exercising his right and duty to request information of one of the universities he is entrusted with overseeing.

How did we get to this point, which threatens to make Texas the scourge of transparency in public higher education?

Hall, frustrated over his inability to secure from the University of Texas at Austin the public records needed to do his job, resorted at last to a right ostensibly enjoyed by every Texas citizen—that of making open records requests of public institutions under the Texas Public Information Act.

That a regent was forced to resort to this method to get information that should have been promptly made available to him by his institution is sad enough.

Sadder still is the witch hunt against him that this has produced.

The rights and duties of all university trustees, not just Hall, have been shoved in a corner, defying the requirements of sound board governance and proving why such governance is indispensable to ensuring that taxpayers are getting what they pay for.

Consider the description of board duties supplied by the nonpartisan American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which explains that trustees are “responsible for both the fiscal well-being of the institution” and “the quality of the education it provides.” Central to “fiduciary responsibility is transparency.”

That’s especially so in public colleges and universities, which are supported by tax dollars.

Wave goodbye to all that now. Whether Hall will be impeached and/or brought up on criminal charges we do not yet know.

What we do know is equally troubling. Regardless of Hall’s ultimate fate, any present or future regent in Texas has already gotten the message: Demand transparency and you will (1) be vilified statewide in the major media; (2) be made the subject of a special committee investigation; and (3) spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of your own money defending your efforts on behalf of Texas taxpayers.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the injustice being perpetrated against the transparency movement by defenders of the higher-education status quo will result not in protecting their institutions, but in emasculating their schools’ capacity to deal effectively with the crisis that has engulfed higher education in Texas and nationwide—a crisis that Hall’s fact-finding efforts sought to address.

Studies point to skyrocketing tuitions; crushing student-loan debt ($1.2 trillion nationally); poor student learning (36 percent of students surveyed nationally show no significant increase in learning during four years of college); and to grade inflation’s erosion of standards (An “A” is the most common grade given in America’s colleges).

The public gets it.

One study finds that 31 percent of 2009 graduates, unable to secure full-time employment, moved back into their parents’ homes. Consequently, 57 percent of prospective students told a Pew survey that college no longer delivers a value worth its cost; 75 percent deem college simply unaffordable.

Response to this crisis requires a fundamental change in higher-education strategy, for the implementation of which only boards have the duty and the legal power.

In the final count, those seeking to destroy Hall will find themselves forced to defend their actions to the people he represents—the Texas taxpayers.

Without energetic board oversight, the crisis engulfing higher education will proceed unabated.

Students will continue to pay too much and learn too little, a scandal that history will record was aided and abetted by a Legislature driven, not by concern for students and their parents, but by the desire to preserve the failed higher-education system.

This is a dramatic departure from the traditional esteem and affection that Texans have for their higher education institutions, an affection dating back to the Texas Republic, whose second president, Mirabeau B. Lamar, made the statement that appears on UT’s seal today: “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.”

Respect for the fruits of that cultivation must include a desire to amend and improve our institutions, not to preserve their failings at the expense of Texans’ future.


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