After chancellor denies records requests, Hall appeals to attorney general

Josh Willis and Jordan Rudner

UT System Regent Wallace Hall is appealing to the attorney general to review student information, despite UT System Chancellor William McRaven’s admonition that Hall’s requests go “well beyond any reasonable desire to be better informed as a regent.”

In a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office earlier this week, Hall’s attorney asked Paxton to intervene after McRaven denied Hall access to requested material. Hall is seeking files used in an independent investigation into admission practices at the University.

In early March, Hall asked to be provided with the documents Kroll Associates, Inc. used to review admissions. The results of the investigation, released in February, found that UT President William Powers Jr. had exerted influence in the admission of a handful of students but concluded that no formal rules were broken. 

Three regents voted to support Hall’s requests, but the Chancellor said Hall would not be given the records unless the Board authorized such access by majority vote, according to the letter Hall’s lawyer sent Paxton, first obtained by the Texas Tribune.

“The Chancellor asserted that giving Regent Hall access to the Kroll records constituted reopening the investigation of student admissions practices or involved FERPA-protected records,” the email said. “The Chancellor decided that Regent Hall did not have an ‘educational purpose’ for reviewing the Kroll records that was sufficient in the Chancellor’s opinion.”

In the email, Hall’s lawyer, Bill Aleshire, asked the attorney general to consider two questions: whether the Board of Regents can prohibit a regent from obtaining access to records the regent believes are “necessary to review to fulfill his duties as a regent,” and whether the chancellor can do to the same.

Aleshire invoked Regent Rule 19801, “Policy on Transparency, Accountability, and Access to Information,” which says that UT System employees must respond to requests for information “without undue delay.” 

“For the purpose of a Board vote on this issue, the vote of any two or more Regents in support of the request is sufficient to direct that the request will be filled without delay,” the policy says.

Barbara Holthaus, UT System assistant general counsel, said there is an exception to FERPA rules called the university official exception. Under this exception, anyone employed by the University who needs access to the confidential information to perform a job may have access. 

Holthaus said any University official seeking access must have an educational purpose, and a person’s position or title does not immediately justify a request for confidential student information. 

“In the case of a regent or a chancellor or president, as long as the access they are requiring is pursuant to a legitimate educational purpose and it’s part of their duties, then they can have access to information that is subject to FERPA,” Holthaus said. “What we know under FERPA, though, is the mere fact that you have a position such as a chancellor or a president doesn’t mean that you get access to any information that you need.” 

In another email to Hall, McRaven further attempted to explain why he did not feel Hall’s requests met those criteria.

“I have no concerns about giving you information that is consistent with your regental needs to be better informed, i.e. how the admissions process works … that is what the board approved,” McRaven wrote. “However, your twelve requests for information lead any reader to believe that you are further investigating the Kroll report, the Fisher litigation, Legislative compliance, all of which are perfectly acceptable for a board, if procedurally the majority of the board wants to undertake these new inquiries. I remain willing to meet with you and provide you information as long as that information isn’t part of an additional inquiry. If it is, I have no problem with that, as long as the majority of the board approves.”