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To help UT System heal, regent Hall should step down

The hallmark of good leadership is knowing when to step aside for the sake of the institution, and in the case of University of Texas System Board of Regents member Wallace L. Hall Jr., that time has come.

Hall’s public wrangling with the University of Texas at Austin and its president, Bill Powers, has become a distraction and has tarnished the flagship’s reputation. We believe that it is time for Hall to step down so that the university can get back to the business of educating students and leading in the world of academia.

Hall, who has come under legislative scrutiny for burying the university in records requests, may have had good intentions when he first began to probe into the university’s dealings. But after months of digging and not much to show for his so-called research efforts, his actions have only cast a negative national spotlight and created a stressful environment for faculty, staff and the board of regents. With possible impeachment and potential criminal charges now on the horizon, Hall is but a distraction from pressing matters, including the search for a new system chancellor.

A report for the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, released last week, stated Hall’s “unreasonable and burdensome requests for records and information”, as well as his “improper use” of confidential student information, violated state laws and constitute grounds for recommending impeachment. Improper disclosure of student information is a misdemeanor under state law, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail. The report, written by Rusty Hardin & Associates LLP, also states that some of Hall’s actions would not by themselves be grounds for impeachment, however “improper” or “incompetent.”

On Monday, Ralph Haurwitz reported that a state House panel had referred its report on Hall to the Travis County district attorney and the county attorney for possible criminal prosecution.

Also energized by the report’s findings, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education has called on Hall to resign, saying he has become “a toxic distraction.” We agree.

Hall’s critics say he is on a witch hunt to oust Powers. Others criticize his lack of interest in other UT System institutions, citing as an example his lack of involvement on the sexual harassment claims against top administrators at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston that resulted in those same administrators getting new jobs after initially resigning.

Yet, supporters say Hall’s demand for official documents has raised valid questions about open-records policies, political influence in admissions and other matters. His supporters may be right, but the price the school has had to pay for Hall’s obsession has been high.

Not only have Hall’s demands created a divide between UT-Austin and UT System personnel, but the highly publicized scrutiny of UT-Austin has also discouraged recruitment of faculty and students to UT-Austin. Recent searches for provost, school deans and the new director of the Butler School of Music have all been affected by the instability.

Every board, whether corporate or academic, has a healthy amount of ideological differences. That’s a good thing. Differences challenge the norm and can be the foundation for greatness.

But when the differences go beyond ideology and turn personal, it takes away from the organization’s goal and mission. Hall’s hunt has not resulted in new policy or ideas to enhance the UT System.

We firmly believe that in order to protect the best interest of the UT System, regents should and need to ask tough questions. We’ve learned this to be true from cases like the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. However, spending 30 to 40 hours a week, as Hall has, combing through hundreds of thousands of pages of UT System emails, letters and other documents, some of them confidential, without disclosed reasons is not productive.

Regents should not be a rubber stamp of approval for all of a president’s ideas. But a regent should find balance in pushing for excellence and moving forward in the name of progress.

Though Hall might believe he is only doing his job, he should see the damage his actions have cause and will continue to have if he stays on as regent.

Hall’s efforts have resulted in change. In February the UT System’s governing board adopted tighter procedures for its members’ information requests, while also granting the members wide latitude to obtain records and data.

But enough is enough; it is time for Hall to step down.

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