The University of Texas System Board of Regents is engaged in a witch hunt to drive out the president of the Austin flagship campus, the chief budget writer for the state House charged Tuesday.
“I think there is witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt to try to remove one of our best presidents in the state of Texas of our universities,” said Rep. Jim Pitts, a Republican from Waxahachie who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “And I hope that we’ll be able to end these witch hunts and put this to bed.”
He added, “Higher ed plays a huge role in our economic development in the state of Texas. We need to get it right.”
Pitts made the comments, without mentioning UT President Bill Powers by name, during the first hearing this legislative session of a special House-Senate panel on higher education governance. The Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency has a charge as broad as its title, but there seems to be little doubt, judging from the 25-minute opening session, that it intends to conduct a detailed examination of the relationship between the UT board and the Austin campus.
The 16-member panel — consisting of 10 Republicans and six Democrats — has filed a sweeping open records request with the UT board for documents concerning that relationship and the board’s relationship with other campuses in the UT System, said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who co-chairs the committee and also leads the House Higher Education Committee.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, co-chairman of the panel and head of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said regents would be subpoenaed to testify if necessary, adding, however, that he had no reason to believe they would not do so voluntarily.
Barry McBee, the UT System’s vice chancellor for governmental relations, told the American-Statesman that the regents are willing to testify. The UT System did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the witch hunt comment by Pitts.
The House-Senate panel, which conducted a similar review of university governance two years ago, was reauthorized last month by House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, amid renewed tension between the UT board and the Austin campus.
Straus and Dewhurst have made it clear that they believe the UT regents have crossed the line from policymaking into micromanaging. That amounts to indirect criticism of Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed all of the regents.
The regents’ relationship with the Austin campus has been strained for about two years. Powers has clashed with his bosses on faculty productivity, tuition, the organization of the school’s fundraising office and other matters.
The Board of Regents is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss an investigation by its audit committee of the UT School of Law and the UT Law School Foundation, which raises private money to supplement faculty salaries. The American-Statesman reported Tuesday that Regent Brenda Pejovich, who chairs the audit committee, requested and obtained a directive informing Powers that he and numerous other campus officials should not delete any of their emails.
Pejovich and three other regents — Wallace Hall Jr., Alex Cranberg and Chairman Gene Powell — have been instrumental in the board’s growing scrutiny of the Austin campus. Hall, for instance, secured copies or originals of about two years’ worth of materials released by the campus in response to some 2,500 open records requests. Hall has not said why he wants to review the records, which filled more than 40 file boxes.
Powers appears to enjoy a slim majority of support on the nine-member UT board. It’s not clear whether Perry’s nomination of two new regents — Jeff Hildebrand of Houston and Ernest Aliseda of McAllen — would change the balance of power, assuming they are confirmed by the Senate. The nominees would replace two regents, James Dannenbaum of Houston and Printice Gary of Dallas, who are considered supporters of Powers. Perry has also nominated a current regent, Paul Foster of El Paso, thought to be in the Powers camp, for another six-year term.