Where is the line between appropriate oversight by a public university governing board and meddlesome intrusion into the operation of a campus?
Members of a state Senate committee struggled with that question Wednesday as they considered a proposal to more sharply define and limit the roles of boards of regents.
The measure, Senate Bill 15, was filed by Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, in response to what many lawmakers have characterized as micromanagement of the University of Texas by the UT System Board of Regents. The bill has nine coauthors, Democrats and Republicans alike.
Seliger said at the outset of the hearing that his bill remains a work in progress. It has already been revised once, and further revision will take place in coming days as interested parties offer suggestions for improvement, he said.
The necessity of careful legislative wordsmithing became clear as the hearing unfolded. For example, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, pointed to a clause in the bill that requires a governing board to “preserve institutional independence and defend each institution’s right to manage its own affairs through its chosen administrators and employees.”
If campuses are supposed to be independent, why bother having a board of regents? Birdwell asked.
“The issue of governance is very delicate,” said Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes. A governing board must establish sound policies for a system of universities while also allowing each of those universities to pursue its particular mission and needs, he said.
Paredes offered no opinion on the tension between the UT board and its Austin flagship. But two witnesses representing UT-Austin students and one representing the university’s alumni said it had become a continual distraction that is eroding morale. They blamed regents.
Michael Redding, president of UT’s graduate student body, said his and two other organizations representing students have approved resolutions supporting SB 15.
Leslie Cedar, CEO of the Ex-Students’ Association, also known as the Texas Exes, said her organization also endorses the measure. She said one regent has expressed displeasure with her group for commenting on board matters. The Exes group has frequently defended UT President Bill Powers.
The UT president and the governing board have been at odds over tuition, the organization of the campus fundraising office, the use of donated funds by the School of Law and other matters in the past two years.
UT System regents are “looking forward to discussions with Chairman Seliger and members of the committee as they review SB 15,” said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman for the system.