Gov. Greg Abbott’s three nominees to the University of Texas System Board of Regents are likely to win easy approval from the state Senate, judging by the friendly reception they enjoyed at a confirmation hearing Thursday before the Nominations Committee.
“I see very capable people in front of me — even you, Senator Eltife,” said committee Chairman Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, poking fun at Kevin Eltife, a former state senator from Tyler. “I am very impressed.”
Besides Eltife, Abbott has nominated Janiece Longoria, a former UT regent, and Rad Weaver, a businessman from San Antonio, to serve six-year terms overseeing 14 academic and health campuses and a multibillion-dollar higher education endowment.
The Board of Regents is perhaps the most prestigious board or commission in state government, but it has also seen its share of internal division, including a pending lawsuit at the Texas Supreme Court by one regent against the system’s chancellor. The timing of the nominees’ likely confirmation could influence the outcome of that case.
Birdwell said the panel would vote next Thursday on the nominees, and there is little doubt that they will advance to the full Senate for consideration. Sens. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and Royce West, D-Dallas, who sat in on the hearing even though neither is a member of the committee, both said the nominees were well qualified and had their support.
Some senators took the hearing as an opportunity to urge the UT System to improve its relations with the Legislature, to hold the line on tuition and to think twice about establishing some sort of campus in Houston.
At the behest of Chancellor Bill McRaven, the system has acquired 332 acres in the state’s largest city, and a local panel is working to come up with recommendations for its use. McRaven has been somewhat vague about what he envisions, saying he wants to establish a leadership institute to raise the talent level of students and administrators, as well as an innovation hub for education, research and business in the nation’s fourth-largest city.
The plan has drawn sharp opposition from the University of Houston, which sees it as encroachment, and from the Houston legislative delegation. The UT System already has two medical campuses in Houston.
“It makes no sense to spend $200 million on a land play if you don’t know the use” and have buy-in from the Legislature, Eltife said. “It’s a concern.”
Longoria said she would not be in favor of the campus if it didn’t have local and legislative support. Weaver said he needs to learn more before offering an informed opinion.
In response to West, who has criticized Abbott for not naming a black person to the UT board, the three nominees all pledged to work at bringing an African American perspective to the board’s deliberations.
The trio also was unanimous in asserting that the role of the Board of Regents is to set policy, not to intervene in campuses’ day-to-day operations. When Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, asked about access to documents, Longoria was precise in her answer because of an ongoing controversy that has divided the UT board.
Regents should have access to documents, she said, but “it’s important that we do it lawfully.”
It wasn’t mentioned at the hearing, but Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr. has sued McRaven in an effort to gain access to records, including confidential student information, from an investigation into admissions practices at the Austin campus. McRaven contends that Hall is not legally entitled to see the confidential information. The Texas Supreme Court is expected to rule any day.
Hall has complained that Abbott and the Senate appear to be fast-tracking the nominees to render the case moot. His term will expire Wednesday, and he would no longer be a regent — and entitled to any special access to records — after his successor is sworn in. The terms of Regents Brenda Pejovich and Alex Cranberg, who have supported Hall’s bid for the records, also end Wednesday.