The University of Texas has supplied more than 40 boxes of records to a member of its governing board who demanded to see all of the materials released in response to public information requests for a nearly two-year period, the American-Statesman has learned.
It’s unclear why Wallace Hall Jr., a member of the UT System Board of Regents, sought all open records correspondence and responses for a 23-month period beginning in January 2011 and running through November 2012. The university received about 2,500 open records requests during that period.
Hall, a businessman from Dallas, told the Statesman that he is “all about transparency” but referred questions about his request to regents Chairman Gene Powell and the UT System’s vice chancellor for external relations.
“Regents are free to request information — and many do — to help familiarize and educate themselves on issues facing UT System institutions,” Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman for the system, said Wednesday by email. “Access to information is essential for good governance. Regent Hall is thorough in performing his due diligence — both in his business and in his work as a regent.”
The campus appears to have sent more than 100,000 pages of documents to the system’s offices in downtown Austin.
A log of those materials obtained by the Statesman from the Austin flagship under the Texas Public Information Act numbers nearly 500 pages. For most of the period in question, the campus supplied original records to the board office for Hall to review rather than copies, to speed up processing time.
Campus officials said they withheld records containing private student information. The requested materials ranged widely and included a list of technology licensing agreements, personnel records for a history professor and the university’s contract with ESPN for the Longhorn Network.
The matter underscores rising tensions between some members of the governing board and Bill Powers, president of the Austin campus. On Monday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst decried efforts by regents to “micromanage” the university. He didn’t elaborate.
On Wednesday, state legislative leaders announced the formation of a House-Senate oversight panel to look into university governance. And Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, introduced legislation that he said would guard against micromanagement by reserving for campuses all duties except those set aside in state law for university systems and boards.
Seliger told the Statesman that he was mystified by Hall’s exhaustive interest in the records, adding that he would ask about it in upcoming legislative hearings. “What is the proper role for regents?” Seliger said. “Should regents go and look at how English professors compose their semester exams?”
Hall has also been examining the university’s fundraising operation closely. Last week, at a public regents’ meeting, he questioned the unit’s organizational structure and its lack of a vice president for development. Powers said one would be hired.
Separately, Hall has questioned the university’s reporting of software donations, even attending an out-of-town meeting to thrash out the issue with campus officials and leaders of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a standards-setting group for such matters.
Hall’s view prevailed, and university officials no longer include the value of software donations in fundraising totals because the right to use such gifts expires after a certain period of time.
Kevin Hegarty, vice president and chief financial officer for the Austin campus, who oversees the open records unit, said he has been given no explanation for Hall’s interest in the voluminous materials. “The only reason given was that Regent Hall wanted to review the documents,” Hegarty said.
The university has stopped providing original documents and is now supplying copies to the board office. “We don’t know when or if we’re going to get the original documents back, which is curious,” Hegarty said. “We’ve been told we might get copies back.”
Supplying the records, as well as a general increase in open records requests lately, has necessitated reassigning some staff members to the open records unit, Hegarty said. Employees of that unit have been working extra hours but, as salaried employees, cannot receive overtime pay. They might be able to take compensatory time off later, he said.
Specialists in university governance say information requests by individual board members are a fairly common problem for universities.
“Many boards have procedures to ensure that requests for information from individual board members must be handled through the board chair and, in best practice, be considered by the whole board,” said Aims McGuinness Jr., a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit policy center in Boulder, Colo. “Without this kind of board discipline, the staff can be overwhelmed with requests.”
Wallace Hall Jr.
Currently: University of Texas System regent, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry two years ago to a term that expires February 2017; president of Wetland Partners LP, which operates the Trinity River Mitigation Bank.
Previously: Member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board; various positions in the financial services industry, including securities analyst.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, UT-Austin, 1984.
Source: University of Texas System