Senate committee questions Board of Regents nominees

Josh Willis and Eleanor Dearman

The Senate Committee on Nominations questioned Gov. Greg Abbott’s three regent appointees for more than five hours about admissions, open records requests, and other issues that have prompted conflict in the UT System at a committee hearing Thursday.

Abbott’s first appointees to the UT System Board of Regents, Steven Hicks, Sara Martinez Tucker and David Beck, appeared before the Senate Committee on Nominations as part of the confirmation process. Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) asked the appointees questions regarding a report’s findings that UT President William Powers Jr. secured the admission of a few applicants over the objection of the admissions office.

When asked about his opinion of the report, which the UT System commissioned, Hicks defended UT Powers told the committee members the president should have some discretion when looking at admissions.

“I don’t see how you could keep a current president from having some role in admissions,” Hicks said. “The admissions officer today reports to this president. I do know [UT System Chancellor William] McRaven is very active in this area, and he’s going to ensure there are no irregularities in this admissions cycle.” 

Hicks was also asked about the extent to which regents should have access to documents, alluding to the controversy surrounding current regent Wallace Hall, who filed open records requests for thousands of documents regarding Powers’ presidency and other UT affairs in 2013.

“I would hope that transparency would be first and foremost in your minds,” committee member Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) said. “I would hope that you would not be an obstructionist to someone that is trying to be transparent and accountable to the people of Texas.” 

Hicks said he thinks regents should have the right to documents and that policies should be implemented to handle large-scale public information requests within the System. 

“I don’t think restriction is the right term; I think there has to be some practicality involved,” Hicks said. “If you’re requesting 2,000 documents, I think there has to be a reasonable set of guidelines.”

At the meeting, board members also questioned Martinez Tucker, who has previously voiced support for the common-core curriculum in certain states. Martinez Tucker said although she admires core curriculum, she is glad it is not implemented in the state. 

“I am thrilled that we have the Texas essential knowledge and those standards,” Martinez Tucker said. “It is the state’s right to create standards. I will respect that, and I will live by that.” 

When asked about tuition affordability at UT institutions, Beck said he wanted to emphasize that affordability was critical.

“I couldn’t afford to go to the University of Texas even back in the 1960s,” Beck said. “Affordability is very important to me and to say that somehow, [affordability is a negative], in the abstract — I don’t agree with that.”

Abbott announced his nominations Jan. 28, shortly after being sworn in as governor. As current regent vice chairman, Hicks is the only appointee with prior regent experience, having been a board member since 2009.