Juvenile behavior distracts from key issues in Board of Regents saga

Walker Fountain

Regent Wallace Hall’s now two-year-long feud with the University of Texas System Board of Regents keeps escalating in its absurdity, and this week’s closed Board of Regents session was no exception. Hall, the embattled regent currently embroiled in a lawsuit against the system, was prevented by the other UT System Regents from attending a closed meeting of the Board of Regents.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Alleged unethical behavior in the admission of certain students to UT-Austin has led to a widespread investigation by Hall, who is requesting unrestricted access to students’ personal information and admissions data to further his investigation. Apparently, Hall believes that his position as a Regent entitles him to peruse data that is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, in his pursuit of uncovering admissions fraud. UT System Chancellor William McRaven refused to grant Hall access to protected data, which prompted Hall to file a suit against McRaven last month and led to his banishment from the Regent's meeting.

There are two issues here. First and foremost: Regent Hall absolutely had a right to be in that meeting. He is, and remains, a regent of the University System despite many calls for him to step down. As a Regent, he is not only entitled to attend Board meetings, but he is duty-bound to do so to ensure proper execution of his position’s responsibilities. The Board of Regents was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for keeping him out of the meeting — their statement citing only that he was a plaintiff in the pending suit. That is correct, but Hall should have been granted the opportunity to make his case and vote on whether the Board would back the chancellor in the suit. Anything else would have been unfair and petty.               

However, Hall is not faultless. The second issue in this fascinating fiasco is even more troubling than the juvenile conduct of the Board: Hall’s request for confidential student information. McRaven has stated, more than once, that he is more than willing to provide what Hall has requested, excluding any federally protected data in the documents and those that are outside of his purview as a regent, something which Hall will not accept. Attorney General Paxton, who has recently gained national attention for ignoring federal laws has backed Hall with a favorable opinion about Hall’s lawsuit, which is yet another confusing development in this convoluted case.

Ultimately, Hall’s lawsuit is frivolous and ridiculous. Hall has no use for nor legal right to federally protected student data. Allowing access to such documents would set a dangerous precedent, not to mention risk the safety of students’ privacy. While Hall should be granted access to documents that fall under the purview of his admissions inquest, he must be reminded that he is not a prosecutor nor a law enforcement official. He is an unelected, politically appointed regent. If there is corruption or systemic abuse in the admissions regime at UT-Austin, he should contact the relevant authorities, who can and should investigate any wrongdoing, using all data available to them. Hall, it seems, has gone well beyond the legitimate scope of his oversight and enforcement responsibilities. That is deeply problematic.               

The Board of Regents did the right thing in backing McRaven in his challenge to Regent Hall’s lawsuit. The chancellor is smart to fight for the protection of student data and privacy and uphold federal law. Unfortunately, the respectability of these proceedings was lost in the spectacle of Hall’s banishment from the regents' chambers. This decision, which is without precedent, may prove fodder for Hall’s unceasing war against UT administrators.

Fountain is a government senior from Pelham, New York.