Checks and balances on the regents

Prominent members of the Texas Legislature filed measures this week to protect the University of Texas’ autonomy from the UT System Board of Regents. The lawmakers’ actions follow a public outpouring of support in the form of speeches and resolutions in favor of UT President William Powers Jr. on Monday.

Specifically, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst reinstituted a joint committee to determine the proper role of governance structures at Texas public universities — including the Board of Regents’ relationship with UT System universities. Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed SB 15, a bill which would promote transparency and prevent the regents from interfering in University matters not specifically delegated to them.

As set forth by Dewhurst, the revival of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency will be an explicit effort to monitor the behavior of the board of regents. The committee, originally formed in 2011 following similar controversy over what the regents’ appropriate role should be, has previously taken as its charge to examine “measures to identify and encourage those governing boards and administrators to follow best practices in policy development and implementation,” according to the proclamation that established the committee. In other words, the committee’s renewal sends an unmistakable message about the importance of oversight of the regents. Significantly, the committee could wield real power in achieving that goal this time around, thanks to Seliger’s proposed SB 15.

The bill, which was co-authored by nine other senators, would prohibit appointed regents from “voting on any budgetary or personnel matters related to system administration or institutions of higher education,” without first being confirmed by the Texas Senate and undergoing “training in the areas of budgeting, policy development, ethics and governance.” It also provides that “all duties not specifically prescribed by law to governing boards or system administration are the responsibilities of institutions of higher education.” This last clause, Seliger said in a statement, “is intended to protect institutional autonomy in the same way that we all expect the 10th Amendment to protect state sovereignty from government overreach.”

It’s only sensible that the regents should undergo ethics training and legislative review — after all, University faculty must submit to similar training and oversight regarding conflicts of interest. Seliger’s proposals are simply an extension of that high ethical standard to those with most decision-making power. The regents should not have unlimited authority over everything that happens at the University of Texas, certainly, but neither should the Legislature or the University administration. All three entities should cooperate under a system of checks and balances to improve higher education in the state of Texas. SB 15 and the Joint Oversight Committee are commendable steps in that direction.