A state District Court judge in Travis County threw out a lawsuit Monday in which a University of Texas System regent sought access to confidential student records from an investigation into favoritism in admissions at the Austin campus.
Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr., a businessman from Dallas, immediately appealed the ruling by Judge Scott Jenkins to the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals. He had sued UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven for refusing to turn over records from the system-commissioned investigation by Kroll Associates Inc.
The ruling by Jenkins “effectively dismisses the case, though we stand ready to continue to defend our position while Regent Hall appeals this ruling,” McRaven said in a written statement.
“I believe that a regent’s access to information is not above the law, and while I am pleased to provide a regent with the answers and information he or she may seek in order to make informed decisions, I will also continue to protect confidential student information, as required by federal and state law,” McRaven said.
Hall has argued that, as a member of the Board of Regents, which oversees admissions and other university matters, he is entitled to see the confidential records.
“Both sides, and Judge Jenkins, understood that the final decision in this matter would come from the Court of Appeals,” Joseph Knight, the regent’s lawyer, said in an email to the American-Statesman. “We have filed the appeal and remain very confident in our analysis of the legal principles at stake.”
The ruling and appeal are the latest developments in years-long turmoil involving the UT board, system executives, the campus and the Legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott’s appointees to the UT board have generally sought peace, not war, with the campus.
But Hall, who was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, has been relentless in what has essentially been a one-man campaign for greater transparency. If not for the questions Hall raised, UT’s admissions practices might never have come to light.
Still, a Travis County grand jury condemned Hall earlier this year but didn’t indict him for what it called “abusive excess” in seeking information. And a state House panel censured him last year for what it described as misconduct and incompetence, but it stopped short of recommending the harsher sanction of impeachment.
Jenkins’ one-page order tossing the case granted McRaven’s “plea to the jurisdiction” — essentially an argument that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over this sort of dispute.
Hall wants to see emails, interview notes and all other materials from the Kroll investigation. The company found that then-UT President Bill Powers sometimes ordered students admitted, despite subpar academic records, after they had been touted by legislators, regents, donors and other influential people.
“Given his statutory role in overseeing the university system and setting campus admissions standards, Hall seeks to understand the extent of the university’s risk and ongoing exposure from political influence peddling,” Knight said in court papers. “He wants to know what punches the consultants pulled; what leads were not pursued; what details were omitted from the public report; and why. He wants to evaluate what changes may be necessary to protect the university from improper influences going forward.”
State Attorney General Ken Paxton has sided with Hall, asserting that the UT System should turn over the disputed records to Hall and that the regent is entitled to sue if the system refuses.
McRaven’s lawyers argued that Hall lacked standing to sue because the chancellor has sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that shields government officials and units from lawsuits. In addition, they said, McRaven was complying with the UT board’s wishes.
During a hearing last week, Jenkins questioned Hall’s need for private student documents to test the effectiveness of a new UT System policy on admissions, inasmuch as Hall has already made it clear that he believes the policy is insufficient.
The policy permits a campus president to order the admission of a “qualified student” who might otherwise be rejected, but only on “very rare” occasions and only in situations of “highest institutional importance.” Reasons for such admissions must be reported to the chancellor.
Knight has expressed concern that legal proceedings might “run out the clock” on Hall’s term as a regent, which expires in February 2017. If the case isn’t resolved by then, Hall presumably would have no claim to see confidential documents as he would no longer be a regent. It’s virtually certain that Abbott wouldn’t renew his appointment to the UT board.