The power of Texas public university governing boards to dismiss campus presidents and otherwise control institutions of higher learning would be scaled back under a measure that won preliminary approval Monday from the state House.
The bill, which has already cleared the Senate, is a response to allegations by legislative leaders and other critics that University of Texas System regents have crossed the line from governance into micromanagement of the Austin flagship. The Senate and House passed resolutions in January honoring UT President Bill Powers amid reports that some regents were trying to force him out.
The measure, Senate Bill 15, would apply to the state’s 11 boards of regents, all of whose members were appointed to their unpaid positions by Gov. Rick Perry. Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Perry, wouldn’t say whether the governor intends to sign or veto the bill, declaring that he would review it in its final form when it lands on his desk. The bill still needs final approval by the House, which is expected.
Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the House sponsor of the bill, seemed upbeat regarding its prospects when he expressed gratitude for cooperation from the governor’s team. The bill emphasizes regents’ role in setting long-term goals and policies for campuses.
“I’ve been trying to find the sweet spot of governance,” Branch said.
Under the measure, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, a governing board could not fire a president unless the system’s chancellor recommended it. Governing boards are currently free to bypass chancellors.
The measure would prohibit a regent from voting on budgetary and personnel matters if he or she had not received training on ethics, conflicts of interest and the role of governing boards. A person appointed to a governing board when the Legislature is not in session would be barred from voting on any matters until the person appeared before the Senate Nominations Committee; however, the appointee could vote if the committee failed to hold a hearing within 20 days —up from 45 days in the Senate version of the bill.
The measure includes a number of passages intended to protect campuses from overzealous boards. It says boards “may not unreasonably or unduly interfere with the day-to-day operations,” and it requires boards to ensure that their powers are not controlled by a minority of board members.
In addition, the bill says boards and board members should communicate to campuses through system administrators rather than directly. That is a response to complaints that some UT board members have peppered the Austin campus with requests for data, reports and open-records materials.
Another provision requires a board to post reports, votes or recommendations, including those by committees and task forces, on the board’s website by the end of the next business day.
An amendment added at Branch’s request calls for three of the nine regents’ six-year terms to expire Feb. 1 on each odd-numbered year.