Fallout from a Pennsylvania State University sexual abuse scandal shaped a policy that allowed a University of Texas System regent to demand more than 40 boxes of open records materials from the Austin campus, the American-Statesman has learned.
The scandal prompted UT System officials to loosen restrictions on the ability of individual members of the governing board to obtain records from the system’s 15 academic and health campuses, according to system documents. It also heightened the Board of Regents’ concern about inappropriate relationships involving campus employees and students.
System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa cited the Penn State scandal and a report on it by former FBI Director Louis Freeh in an Oct. 1 memorandum that barred “obstructions to inquiries and requests from members of the governing board.” He also outlined tighter policies concerning supervision of campus police chiefs and reporting of significant matters to the Board of Regents. The memo was sent to presidents of the UT System’s 15 academic and health campuses.
Previous UT System policies called for some degree of coordination and review to avoid overwhelming campuses with information requests by regents.
The Statesman reported this week that Regent Wallace Hall had the Austin campus supply him with 23 months’ worth of materials released in response to open records requests it had received. About 2,500 such requests were submitted by journalists, lawyers, businesspeople and the general public from Jan. 1, 2011, through November 2012, UT-Austin officials said.
Neither Hall nor the UT System has explained why he wanted the materials.
The chancellor’s memo emerged from a review prompted by Gov. Rick Perry, who wrote to regents Chairman Gene Powell in July asking the board to examine policies and procedures for criminal situations of the kind that occurred at Penn State. Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, was convicted in June on 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 boys.
Freeh’s report accused former football coach Joe Paterno and three former school administrators of concealing Sandusky’s activities from Penn State’s Board of Trustees and law enforcement authorities. Freeh portrayed governing board members as passive overseers who failed to create “an environment where senior university officials felt accountable.”
Cigarroa’s memo said that, in the past two years, the UT System had taken several approaches to handling regents’ requests for information, generally formalizing the procedure to improve efficiency.
“However, in this post-Penn State world, there can be no obstructions to inquiries and requests from members of the governing board seeking information they determine is needed to be as fully informed as possible such that they can best meet their governance responsibilities,” Cigarroa wrote. “Accordingly, we will not attempt to limit or dissuade requests for information from members of the Board, but will ask that, to the fullest extent possible, such requests come through either the Board Office or the Chancellor’s Office to assure timely responses and to avoid duplication of efforts.”
A new policy calls for campus police chiefs to report to campus presidents or to officials reporting directly to the presidents. The chancellor also wrote that the current expectation is that “significant matters are to be communicated as quickly as possible” to UT System administrators and the Board of Regents.
It was against this evolving policy backdrop that Cigarroa and Powell reacted sharply early this month when the Austin flagship announced that an assistant football coach had been reprimanded in 2009 for an inappropriate relationship with a student. The regents held a rare Sunday meeting and launched a review of the 15 campuses’ policies concerning relationships between university employees and students.
Powell said in a statement Friday that he has met with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to assure him that his fellow regents are “outstanding individuals” and that recent criticism of them “surely has to be the result of misinformation.”
On Monday, Dewhurst blasted unnamed regents for “going around” UT President Bill Powers and “trying to micromanage” the university. He also said Powers’ detractors have “engaged in character assassination.” A special House-Senate panel has been established to investigate.