Mark Ridenour: ACTA Board Member and Former Board Chairman, Miami University
Mark Ridenour graduated from Miami University in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He began his career at National...
In his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, the document that, to simplify only a little, launched the conservative movement, William F. Buckley, Jr. lamented what he later called “the phenomenon of the somnolent college trustee.” Looking back in 2007, Buckley concluded that little had changed in the intervening 56 years. “Mostly, the college establishment is regnant,” he wrote. “Trustees are expected to be affable creatures, preferably rich and generous. They are not expected to weigh in on college affairs, which are adequately handled by presidents, provosts, deans, and lesser administrative folk.”
This was not always the case. Decades previous, boards of trustees (for private universities) or regents (for public universities) had real power, since they were composed of donors and alumni on whose good opinion the university depended for financial support. By Buckley’s day, their influence had waned, but the final act that cast regents and trustees off the seat of power came, along with much other mischief, in the 1960s. The federal government got into the higher-ed game with loans and grants. This opened college to students who otherwise couldn’t have afforded to attend—and that’s a good thing. But it also permitted schools to increase tuition and declare financial independence from private donors.
U.S. institutions have been wonderfully successful in the hard sciences and economics. At this year’s Nobel Prize announcement, nine of the eleven joint winners in science and economics were affiliated with an American university. But this kind of glitter masks the all-too-evident failures in the other parts of the academy: the courses on things best left to People magazine, the indoctrination in hard-left ideology, the absurd salaries paid to administrators. Much of this can be traced to the absence of any kind of adult supervision.
What we’re left with are two different forms of university governance, dignified and efficient (to use a distinction employed by Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution). The dignified one describes how power flows symbolically, by the letter of the law: The board appoints a college president, who polices the faculty. But the efficient one describes where power lies in practice: The faculty runs the show and the board is virtually powerless. A corrupt bargain has been enshrined between professors and college presidents. The former run the university and teach whatever they desire, and the latter get half-million dollar salaries. It’s a great honor to be named to a university board, just so long as one doesn’t take the job seriously.
Wallace Hall, however, means business—and it has landed him in the middle of a you-know-what-storm. The University of Texas regent, appointed by Rick Perry in 2011, faces potential impeachment in the state legislature for, primarily, filing too many requests for public records. State Rep. Jim Pitts, the man who has arguably led the charge to impeach, has accused Hall of conducting a “witch hunt” aimed at ousting Bill Powers, the president of the system’s flagship institution, the University of Texas at Austin.
Hall has filed requests under the Texas Public Information Act for large amounts of information, including correspondence among UT Austin administrators and emails between Powers and state politicians. But he contends the method has achieved results. In a letter to state legislators, Hall’s lawyer pointed out three substantive findings from the regent’s efforts.
The first relates to a now-defunct program, intended to help the UT Austin law school retain talent, under which a private foundation gave “forgivable loans” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to faculty as off-books compensation. The dean of the school, Lawrence Sager, received a $500,000 such loan but was forced to resign when the affair became public in 2011. Hall’s attorney wrote that, based on documents he has reviewed, Hall now believes President Powers knew of Sager’s loan as early as 2009.
Second, the lawyer wrote, Hall has corrected the university’s method of reporting donations. In one case, the letter states, UT Austin had included temporary grants of software licenses in its fundraising tally, which inflated the number by $224 million.
Third, Hall has evidence, according to the letter, that state legislators have contacted university officials and used their clout to influence the school’s admissions process. For instance, Hall’s attorney wrote that one senator, lobbying for a favored applicant who previously had been rejected, “reminded the UT Austin official of recent legislative action taken to benefit The University.”
If one considers these matters of public import, then the question must be raised: Why would legislators go through the trouble of trying to oust a regent through impeachment—which would be historic, since only two Texas officials have ever been impeached—over what seems on its face to be legitimate oversight?
One theory is that legislators are practicing politics through different means.
Higher-education circles in the state have been roiled over the past several years by a set of proposals backed by Governor Rick Perry and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, some of which seem to have percolated into the UT chancellor’s Framework for Advancing Excellence. The plan aimed to increase learning and keep tuition and administrative costs in check by, among other things, ranking faculty on the number of students taught per unit of salary, putting more emphasis on student evaluations, and instituting bonus pay for particularly effective professors.
UT Austin certainly does have room to improve. The school is ranked by U.S. News as no. 52 in the nation, though its $2.3 billion budget is about the same size as two schools ranked much higher, the University of Virginia (no. 23) and the University of Michigan (no. 28).
But those in the faculty lounges took this businesslike talk of metrics and efficiency as an attack. Hunter Rawlings, for instance, the president of the prestigious Association of American Universities, has called Texas “ground zero” in the higher-ed crisis. “Governor Rick Perry has, with the help of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, launched an assault on Texas A&M and the University of Texas, Austin: he wants an undergraduate degree to cost $10,000, and no more; he wants graduates ready-made for jobs; he wants faculty members evaluated on the basis of how much money they bring in and how many students they teach,” Rawlings said last year. “This is essentially to treat research universities as vocational schools, diploma mills, and grant-getters.
Within the state, one of those who has resisted the reform agenda is UT president Bill Powers. “To paraphrase Lincoln, we are a house divided about our fundamental mission and character,” he said in his 2011 State of the University speech. Powers publicly butted heads with UT regents—ostensibly his bosses—last year when they voted down his request for a tuition hike.
A source we talked to at the university who has observed the preceding events says the only possible conclusion is that the effort to impeach Hall is little more than a proxy battle in this larger war over the future of Texas higher education. As a Houston Chronicle columnist joked: “Impeachment is a rare event in Texas history, and has been invoked solely for serious crimes. Bribery, for instance. Or messing with the University of Texas at Austin.”
But others say the situation is much more simple: Hall, on his march to reform, walked straight into a tangled web of powerful interests.
UT Austin wields tremendous influence within the state in its own right. With its independent government relations office, PR shop, newsletters, magazines, and Texas Exes alumni association, the university can move public opinion. The school doles out prestigious alumni awards and gives prominent politicians free football tickets, or seats in the president’s box during home games.
Personal and familial connections abound. Hall continues to push investigation into the “forgivable loans,” and the man under whom the program probably started, according to a university investigation, was none other than…president Bill Powers, who served as dean of the law school prior to the ousted Lawrence Sager. Hall claims to have evidence to prove legislators interceded in the admissions process, and one state representative has now admitted that he wrote a recommendation letter on behalf of his son. That politican’s name? Jim Pitts, the appropriations committee chairman gunning for Hall’s impeachment. (Pitts contends the letter for his son was a “form letter” no different than any other recommendation he sends, though one suspects UT Austin officials noted the applicant’s surname.)
There’s a whole lot of circular backscratching that Hall has the potential to disrupt. Witness how, when the temperature began to rise, those in politics and academia began to circle the wagons. Just weeks ago, the Association of American Universities elected Powers its leader. “He has been explaining to his state and the country the vital role these extraordinary institutions play in solving the nation’s most serious problems,” Hunter Rawlings said. In February, after a particularly contentious meeting between Powers and the regents, the Texas Senate passed a resolution in support of the UT president. For 40 minutes, senators sang Powers’ praise in what one Austin-American Statesman columnist called a well-choreographed performance. “So flowery were the comments,” the columnist wrote, “that Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, assured Powers, ‘This is not a eulogy.’”
Charles Miller, a well-regarded former UT regents chairman, argues that the spectacle—and the impeachment proceedings overall—amounts to inappropriate political meddling. “It’s not the legislature’s business to protect the president of the University of Texas at Austin,” Miller says. “I don’t think they know what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s any of their damn business.”
Miller, a proud advocate of UT schools, is no fan of the entire Texas education reform agenda. But he says the board sets the direction for the system, and if an institution’s president is continually at odds, as Powers has been, it is well within a regent’s right to advocate a change in leadership.
Another voice in Hall’s defense has been Anne Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “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,” she wrote last week in the Houston Chronicle. “The Legislature has determined to target Hall, and the public should say ‘enough.’” In a June op-ed for the Austin-American Statesman, Neal decried “a culture that expects trustees to be little more than potted plants.”
Legislators, clearly, would prefer the potted plants. The committee investigating Hall, which meets again this week, has not allowed the besieged regent to cross-examine those giving testimony against him. Nor has it notified Hall when—or whether—it will call him to tell his side of the story. Impeachment in Texas does not require any finding of criminality, leaving Hall’s fate to the personal opinions of members of the statehouse. “I think the standard for impeachment,” an attorney for the committee told the Texas Tribune, “is pretty much what the majority of 150 people are going to say.”
The message from the whole affair is that any board member who raises his head above the foxhole can expect to take fire from all sides—from politicians, from faculty, from students, from the press. Already the lesson seems to have been internalized. Three current regents phoned about Hall’s case did not answer or return calls.
But Hall himself seems ready to take on all comers. He declined to comment for this story, except to provide the following statement:
“I’m unfazed by the activities of the committee,” Hall said. “I will continue to do my job, which includes asking questions, and on some occasions asking more questions until I get good answers.”
There’s a Wallace Hall scandal, of course. It’s also a scandal that it’s a scandal. What the sorry episode reveals is that boards are expected—by politicians and university leaders alike—to be supine, sycophantic, and that the prevailing powers react savagely against anyone who steps out of line. A state ready to impeach a regent for doing his job would, if it had any integrity, dispense with the pretense and abolish the board altogether.
Mark Ridenour graduated from Miami University in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He began his career at National...
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