• In tense meeting, Board of Regents votes to commission external audit of UT Law School Foundation

    Update - Reaction from President William Powers Jr. after the Board of Regents' decision: 

    "Any implication that what occurred today is [about] not being transparent or forthcoming with information to the System or perhaps to the Regents is simply false.  If that was an implication I think that’s the most important thing to dispel... Executive session is not open and I’m not at liberty to talk about that. But I will say that, again, any impression that there were facts that we were not forthcoming with is simply not true... The Burgdorf report looked into this. The Attorney General looked into this. The audit committee is now auditing. That’s still in progress. We have cooperated and been forthcoming with information at every stage.”

    Original story

    After an uncharacteristcally heated meeting, the UT System Board of Regents voted Tuesday to continue the investigation of the UT School of Law Foundation’s relationship with the University, including an additional external review at the recommendation of the board's Audit, Compliance and Management Review Committee. The vote passed with a narrow 4-3 margin.

    The specially called meeting — held during a period of escalating tension between the regents, the Texas Legislature and President William Powers Jr. — featured several moments of conflict.

    The Audit, Compliance and Management Review Committee formerly recommended an external review of the use and management by UT-Austin of funds provided by the foundation to supplement the committee’s investigation.

    During the tense meeting, several regents said they were concerned with the use of taxpayers’ money on an additional review. Regent Steven Hicks referred to the $500,000 price tag of an conducting an additional investigation as “beating a dead horse.” Hicks said the System has steered toward a board-driven entity in recent months, and that he did not approve of this shift.

    “There have been times in the last two years where not only I have not been proud, I’ve been somewhat ashamed of being a UT regent, and that’s a real travesty to me,” he said.

    Regent Wallace Hall defended the committee’s recommendation because he said the System continues to receive documents that were not included in an initial open records request he made recently. The open records request was far-reaching, requesting boxes of University documents over the course of the last 18 months.

    In 2011, Powers asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, to resign after concerns arose regarding the foundation’s forgivable loan program. Though Sager received $500,000 through the program, Powers has said he was not aware of the loan at the time it was made. This assertion was contradicted at the meeting, when Hall said he had discovered evidence that Powers was aware of the forgivable loan and had chosen not to address the matter. Powers denied to reporters that he had been anything less than transparent in his dealings with the regents.

    The program was used as a tool to recruit and retain top law faculty from across the country to UT by offering them forgivable loans if the faculty members agreed to stay for a certain number of years. The foundation and its program are funded by UT alumni and other donors. 

    The Regents' audit committee also recommended setting aside a previous report on the foundation’s relationship with the University released last November.

    System vice chancellor and general counsel Barry Burgdorf, who announced his resignation earlier this month, wrote the report, which concluded that the forgivable loan program was conducted in a manner that was “not appropriate.” The report laid out the history of the forgivable personal loan program, which began in 2003 while UT-Austin President Bill Powers served as law school dean. The program was then expanded under Sager.

    In the report, Burgdorf recommended permanently ending the program and awarding compensation to faculty through restricts gifts rather than direct payouts during hiring.

    At a House hearing on transparency in state operations last week, foundation board president John Massey said the foundation was in the process of phasing out the forgivable loan program and finding new incentive programs to help attract top faculty to the University.

    The System created a task force to look into the incident last year and was supposed to provide their results later this spring.

    Earlier this week, Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UT System, directed Powers to not delete any emails from electronic devices in or accessed by the Office of the President over the course of the audit review of the Law School Foundation.

    Regents Hall, Alex Cranberg, Paul Foster and Brenda Pejovich voted in the majority to continue the investigation with an external review, while regents Hicks, James Dannenbaum, and Robert Stillwell voting against continuing the review process.

    Cranberg said the external review would provide a more comprehensive view of the events that led toward lapses in governance that have been fixed. Stillwell said he was happy with Burgdorf’s report, which was also reviewed by the staff of the Office of the Attorney General.

    Tensions surrounding the Board of Regents have escalated in recent months. In February, after a meeting at which Powers was intensely questioned by the board, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus relaunched the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance Excellence, and Transparency. At the committee’s first meeting yesterday, members requested information from the system required to investigate allegations the board was “micromanaging” UT administration.

    The Texas Legislature also recently passed three resolutions honoring Powers. At the ceremony following the resolutions, Dewhurst became emotional, telling Powers “we are lucky to have you.”

    I believe in reform, and I know that Bill Powers believes in reform,” Dewhurst said. “That’s why I’m particularly troubled when I see UT regents go around this man. I see them trying to micromanage the system.”

    Dewhurst also referred to what he called “character assassination” plots launched against Powers and his family.

    In a statement, board chairman Gene Powell said these allegations “surely had to be the result of misinformation and were either incorrect or inaccurate.” Powell, regent Printice Gary and student regent Ashley Purgason were not present at Wednesday's meeting.

  • Lawmakers request information regarding regent, UT employee correspondence

    A joint committee composed of members of both houses announced Tuesday that they have requested information from the UT System Board of Regents necessary to investigate allegations that the board is “micromanaging” administrative decisions at UT.

    Speaking at the first meeting of the relaunched Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, committee co-chair state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said he wishes to maintain a positive image of the state’s higher education institutions. To do so, it is important to understand how university systems govern their institutions and if the governance structure needs to change, Branch said.

    “It would be my hope that the point here is to not create any harm to any particular system, certainly not to our state, and see if we can calmly and deliberately improve the situation at this one particular system and by application improve governance at all of our systems,” Branch said.

    The information requests, addressed to Regents Chairman Gene Powell, seek a variety of communications and records between regents, System employees and University employees dating from Jan. 1, 2012, primarily communications sent “at the direction of a regent.”

    Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus relaunched the joint committee last month after regents intensely questioned UT President William Powers Jr. over a number of topics at a Feb. 13 board meeting.

    The week after the board meeting, the Legislature passed three resolutions defending and honoring Powers, culminating in a ceremony on the Senate floor. During an emotional testimony, Dewhurst decried the regents for “micromanaging” Powers.

    Powell released a statement that week defending the regents and saying that Dewhurst’s allegations “surely had to be the result of misinformation and were either incorrect or inaccurate.”

    Last week, Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, emailed Powers instructing him to refrain from deleting emails in or accessed by the Office of the President over the course of the pending audit review of the UT Law School Foundation. Powers asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, in December 2011 to resign after it was revealed that Sager obtained $500,000 in forgivable personal loans from the UT Law School Foundation. 

    Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said Tuesday that regents are engaging in an effort to oust Powers that is distracting from the mission to administrate UT.

    “I think there’s a witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt to try to remove one of our best presidents in the state of Texas, of our universities,” Pitts said. “And, I hope that we’ll be able to end these witch hunts and put this to bed so that the president of a tier one university can govern that university and not have interference from the board of regents.”

    Committee co-chair state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said higher education institutions’ mission to achieve excellence is hindered when they are embroiled in controversy, which the committee aims to address.

    “Excellence is very seldom achieved by controversy or by rumor and things like that,” Seliger said.

    Last month, Seliger filed a bill that would limit regents’ authority over the individual institutions they govern. It would amend state law to say that all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards of those university systems fall under the authority of the individual institutions of that system.

    Seliger, who also chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said his committee will examine the bill within the next two weeks.

    “There’s no point in waiting, we want to get it moving,” Seliger said.

  • Texas House approves consolidated UT System school in Valley

    The Texas House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would establish a new UT System university in the Rio Grande Valley.

    The bill would combine UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and allow that institution to access the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment for institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center would become a medical school under the proposal.

    Upon its establishment, the university would have about 28,000 students, research expenditures of more than $11 million and an endowment of $70.5 million, according to a report by the House Research Organization.

    The bill now moves to the Senate, which approved a similar bill last week by a vote of 30-1. 

    Initial studies predict that consolidating the existing universities could save $6 million in administrative costs, according to the report.

    The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for a prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation. 

    Each house must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote for it to take effect.

  • Regents will meet to discuss Law School Foundation, direct Powers not to delete emails

    The UT System Board of Regents will hold a special meeting on Wednesday to discuss and possibly take action on issues regarding the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School foundation. The board will also discuss “the financial management and use” by UT of funds to support the law school and relevant legal issues after hearing a recommendation from the Audit, Compliance, and Management Review Committee. 

    In December 2011, President William Powers Jr. asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, to step down from his position after an open records request from law school faculty revealed he obtained $500,000 in forgivable personal loans from the UT Law School Foundation. 

    Barry Burgdorf, the UT System vice chancellor and general counsel who resigned earlier this month, authored the System’s report on the incident. The report found the lack of transparency in the forgivable personal loan program meant it “suffer[ed] infirmities that make it inappropriate for a public university in Texas.”

    Last week, Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, emailed Powers directing him not to delete emails of any time from electronic devices or computers in or accessed by the Office of the President over the course of the pending audit review of the Law School Foundation. The email also directed the offices of the provost, executive vice president for business affairs and vice president for legal affairs not to delete emails, and mentioned Sager, assistant dean Kimberly Biar, and Glenn Woelfel, senior financial analyst for the law school.

    Powers’ spokesman Gary Susswein described this move as “unusual.”

  • Kearney files employment discrimination complaint against University

    Bev Kearney, former women’s track and field head coach, has filed a discrimination complaint against the University, according to her attorney, Derek Howard.

    The complaint has been filed with the Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights Division, which will then conduct an investigation to see if there were any violations of the Texas Labor Code.

    Kearney resigned in January after she was told the University was prepared to fire her because of a relationship she had with a student-athlete in 2002. The former student-athlete reported the relationship in October, after which Kearney was put on paid leave.

    Kearney and Howard have said in the past that the way her situation was handled by the University is different from the way other situations have been handled.

    The Texas Workforce Commission will have 180 days to investigate the complaint, after which it determines whether Kearney has the right to sue the University.