The new chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents pledged Thursday to ease tensions with the Austin flagship and expressed support for its president.
Paul L. Foster, a businessman and philanthropist from El Paso, was unanimously elected by his fellow regents, as expected. He succeeds Gene Powell, a land developer and entrepreneur from San Antonio whose tenure since February 2011 has been punctuated by stormy relations with UT-Austin, lawmakers and alumni.
Foster assumes the chairmanship of one of the nation’s largest university systems at a time when one regent, Wallace L. Hall Jr., is under investigation by a state House committee for possible impeachment, in part because of his relentless demands for records from the Austin campus.
Foster reiterated a pledge he made in his Senate confirmation hearing to pursue a more moderate and less investigative posture toward the Austin campus. Some regents have sparred with the campus on fundraising, faculty productivity, tuition and other matters.
“I’m committed to trying to move this system forward and to get past some of the distractions that we’ve had and to get everybody moving the same direction, working on the same page,” Foster said. “And I”m confident that we can do that.”
As for UT-Austin President Bill Powers, Foster said: “I’m very supportive of him. He’s our president.”
Powers is on vacation. Steven Leslie, UT-Austin’s executive vice president and provost, welcomed Foster’s election. “I think the University of Texas will advance strongly under his leadership,” Leslie said.
Also on Thursday, the regents adopted recommendations intended to guard against financial impropriety, secrecy and other problems in connection with foundations that support the system’s 15 academic and health campuses.
There are 21 university-affiliated foundations, but the recommendations emerged from a review prompted by a controversy involving just one of them: the UT Law School Foundation. The disclosure of forgivable loans from the foundation directly to law professors at the Austin flagship — rather than through the university’s central payroll unit — led to the demotion of then-Dean Larry Sager, who had received a $500,000 loan.
The relationship between the Law School and the Law School Foundation is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general’s office. The recommendations and other parts of a Board of Regents’ task force report did not refer directly to that controversy, but one passage seemed to allude to it:
“One thing is clear: To maintain the public’s trust, a greater degree of transparency for public institutions and private foundations is required today than at any previous time.”
Regent Brenda Pejovich, who led the task force, emphasized that the UT System is “profoundly grateful” for the financial support of the foundations.
In other action, the regents:
— Authorized $24 million in bond money toward construction of utility systems that will provide power, heating and cooling to UT-Austin’s planned medical school.
— Approved a plan to review and improve compliance with the state’s open-records law at the system’s campuses and at the system administration.
— Received a brief update from Foster on a task force he leads on policies regarding employee-student relationships. Officials decided in February to conduct a review after it was disclosed that Major Applewhite, an assistant football coach at the Austin campus, had been disciplined in 2009 for an inappropriate relationship with a female student. Foster said the task force plans to issue its report in November.