- Ralph K.M. Haurwitz American-Statesman Staff
First, the state attorney general sided with University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall Jr. in his court battle to obtain records of an investigation into admissions improprieties. Now, two frequent Hall allies on the Board of Regents and two former chairmen of the board have thrown in with him.
Regents Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich and former chairmen Charles Miller and Gene Powell filed a friend-of-the-court brief last week backing Hall’s lawsuit against UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven. The chancellor contends that Hall is not entitled to see confidential student records of the investigation into favoritism in admissions at UT-Austin.
“The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (‘FERPA’) does not trump the need for individual regents to have access to such information for purposes of fulfilling their duties and responsibilities as Regents of the UT System,” lawyers for the four wrote in the brief. “While universities’ misapplications of FERPA to avoid disclosing negative or embarrassing information to the press have become increasingly common over the past several decades, this is the first time an educational institution has invoked FERPA against its very own regent. ”
McRaven’s lawyers contend that Hall is seeking “unfettered access” that does not meet the federal standard of “legitimate educational interest” to warrant granting him access to private student files underlying the admissions investigation.
New York City-based Kroll Associates Inc., which was hired by the UT System, found that then-UT President Bill Powers sometimes ordered students admitted, despite subpar academic records, at the urging of legislators, regents, donors and other influential people.
“That a regent has a legitimate educational interest in personally identifiable information for purposes of admission standards and for assuring that UT’s employees are behaving in an honest and above-board way should be unquestionable, but the UT System has taken the novel position that Regent Hall does not have a legitimate educational interest,” the brief by the two regents and two former board chairmen said.
State Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a friend-of-the-court brief in March urging the 3rd Court of Appeals to rule in Hall’s favor. Hall appealed to that court after Scott Jenkins, a state district judge in Travis County, threw out his lawsuit, essentially agreeing with the chancellor that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over this sort of dispute.
Paul Foster, chairman of the UT board, and Regents Jeffery Hildebrand and Steve Hicks said in a statement: "We are disappointed that a few current and former members of the Board of Regents chose to take this course of action. The majority of the board has taken a clear position in support of Chancellor McRaven on this issue. We disagree with the legal analysis presented in the amicus brief and note that it demonstrates a significant misunderstanding of the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)."
Hall hopes to get a final ruling in the case by Feb. 1, when his six-year term on the UT board ends.