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Admissions Investigation Preceded by Years of Tension

A recent announcement that the University of Texas System will commission an external investigation into the admissions process at the University of Texas at Austin is only the latest chapter in an ongoing, tension-filled saga.

Hurting for Work


Part 2 of a three-part series on the debate over lawmakers and UT-Austin's admissions process

A recent announcement that the University of Texas System will commission an external investigation into the admissions process at the University of Texas at Austin is only the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that has repeatedly pitted one UT institution against another, system officials against board officials and legislators against gubernatorial appointees.

For UT System Regent Wallace Hall, who first raised the admissions questions, the path has been particularly long and winding, complete with hidden passages and dead ends. Though his allegations of improper influence in admissions have stirred enough concern to prompt reviews, he is currently the subject of both a legislative and a criminal investigation, the former for seeking extensive documents from UT-Austin, the latter for his handling of a small number of those documents.

Among the surprising turns:

  • An impeachment investigation into Hall’s behavior concluded that the bulk of his potentially impeachable offenses had actually occurred after the investigation started.
  • The co-chair of the legislative committee mulling articles of impeachment against Hall wrote a missive explaining why he believed there were no grounds for impeachment, only to vote — in the overwhelming majority — that there were grounds for impeachment.
  • Hall copied a lawmaker's technique of requesting documents as a private citizen in order to expedite access to them, only to have that method come under scrutiny from other lawmakers.

Some observers say the seeds of tension that led to all this recent action were planted long before Hall ever stepped foot in the UT System boardroom.

“This whole drama became evident years ago,” said House Speaker Joe Straus, Republican of San Antonio, who created the legislative committee charged with investigating Hall. “This isn’t about Wallace Hall or an admissions policy. It’s really about Jeff Sandefer and his ‘seven breakthrough solutions’ and the fact that he hasn’t been able to encourage the support of five regents” on the nine-member board.

The backdrop Straus references dates to  May 21, 2008, when a meeting was held at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, just south of the Capitol and slightly east of the UT System offices. Put on by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, and hosted by Perry, the event was pitched as an opportunity for regents from the state’s various university systems to ponder the need for a new approach to higher education.

The discussion was largely run by Sandefer, a Perry donor, TPPF board member, former UT-Austin professor and Acton School of Business founder who had made a fortune in the oil and gas industry, but whose passion lay in education. In an unofficial capacity, Sandefer has been a trusted higher education policy adviser to Perry, who has called on Sandefer to help him vet potential regents.

Though he would not become a regent until 2011, Hall was also in attendance at the meeting.

According to notes taken by Barry McBee, the UT System’s vice chancellor of government relations and a former chief of staff to Perry, Sandefer’s comments at the event covered themes like “the need for greater assessment and reward of teaching, some skepticism and challenge to some of the research currently being done on campus, an attack on the current accreditation system [and] challenges to faculty governance.” (Years later, McBee would play a role in the admissions investigation at UT-Austin. It was his interest in the admissions status of a legislator’s son — documented by a colleague’s email — that initially caught Hall’s eye.)

These concepts were boiled down to seven policy proposals written by Sandefer. The most controversial called for separating the research and teaching budgets in each university department. In 2013, UT-Austin President Bill Powers told the legislative committee investigating Hall that this was the only plank he took issue with.

According to McBee’s notes, Perry said at the time that the proposals were not mandatory, nor were they a “one size fits all solution.” McBee added that Perry “did emphasize his belief that regents would be judged by what happens after this event.”

The proposals did not stir much public controversy until the Texas A&M University System looked into one of the “seven solutions.” System officials prepared a spreadsheet of all faculty members at their flagship university with those who raised research money for the university listed in black. Those who did not generate as much research money — and subsequently were an overall expense for the university — were printed in red.

The reveal — which, behind the scenes, even Sandefer thought was clumsy — prompted a reprimand from the president of the American Association of Universities, an organization made up of the country’s top research universities. Robert Berdahl, a former UT-Austin president and the AAU’s president at the time, urged the A&M chancellor to resist Sandefer’s proposals, which he referred to as “ill-conceived calls for ‘reform.’

The “red and black report” was dropped and other “seven solutions”-inspired proposals at A&M were rolled back. Richard Box, then the chairman of the A&M System, called the proposals a “distraction.”

The only other public university in Texas in the AAU is UT-Austin. Though the “seven solutions” had not taken hold as publicly on the UT System board, the Longhorn community had taken note of what was happening at A&M.

In February 2011, Perry — who would later compare the ensuing governance struggle at UT to the Battle of the Bulge — appointed Hall and Alex Cranberg, who had also attended the May 2008 meeting, to the UT System board and reappointed Brenda Pejovich, a TPPF board member. Gene Powell, a businessman from San Antonio, was named the new chairman. Internally, members of Perry’s staff referred to this group as their “kick-ass regents.”

In an early interview, Powell likened an affordable degree to a Chevy Bel Air, which could get the job done for those students who did not require a pricey Cadillac degree. Those in UT-Austin’s inner circle who feared that the new crop of regents would push a business-oriented agenda more in line with the “seven solutions” over a traditional academic approach consistent with AAU standards seized on that comment.

Adding to their concern was Powell’s hiring of a special adviser to the board named Rick O’Donnell. O’Donnell had ties to Sandefer and had written a paper for the TPPF questioning the value of academic research in Texas. The adviser led an effort to gather massive amounts of data on faculty productivity. After an outcry from prominent UT-Austin alumni and boosters, O’Donnell was let go after less than two months on the job.

On his way out the door, O’Donnell said he was the victim of a “well-orchestrated public relations campaign.” Cranberg warned that it was harmful “for a bunch of false hysteria to be whipped up about what the board may or may not do.”

At a public forum in 2013, Hall, who declined to comment for this article, acknowledged, “We started on a bad foot, if you will.”

“When I came on the board and two other regents came on the board,” he said, “it reminded me of something I heard from a child psychologist who talked about, ‘It all started when he hit me back.’”

The battle lines had been drawn.

In June 2011, a bipartisan group of prominent UT-Austin supporters — including former regents, chancellors and university presidents — formed the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which was designed to push back against “seven solutions”-like reform efforts. The Burson-Marsteller office of Karen Hughes, a former counselor to President George W. Bush and an adviser to Straus, was tapped to handle the coalition’s communications.

In August 2011, there was a brief kumbaya moment when UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa unveiled his “framework for advancing excellence,” an attempt to establish a uniform set of goals for the UT System. It received praise from both the coalition and the TPPF.

The peace did not last. Less than a month later, Powers delivered his state of the university address, in which he borrowed a phrase from the Civil War, describing UT as a “house divided,” specifically on the issues of “our fundamental mission and character.”

This was all a prelude. It would still be a year before Hall began digging into UT-Austin open records documents — the behavior that has landed him in his current hot water — which would lead him to turn up evidence of what he has alleged is favoritism in UT-Austin admissions.

In December 2011, Powers abruptly asked Larry Sager, the dean of the UT-Austin law school, to resign. He cited management issues. But there were allegations of a gender gap in wages, and concerns about how Sager had handled payouts from the University of Texas Law School Foundation’s forgivable loan program — including one $500,000 payment he received. That program was initially created when Powers was serving as dean of the law school as a way to help lure top teaching talent to the school.

Two professors had made an open records request to learn more about these issues. In its response to the request, the university failed to turn over an anonymous letter Cigarroa had received in March of 2011 detailing related complaints about the law school. That disclosure failure would later trigger questions from Hall about the university’s compliance with the state’s open records laws.

Sager’s ouster also prompted The Texas Tribune to file an open records request. Among the documents university officials gathered for review was a 2009 letter from a UT-Austin official seeking — at the request of McBee —information about the law school application of a lawmaker’s son. That letter was not turned over to the Tribune.

Later, when Hall began looking over all of the university’s open records files, this troubled him. So did the fact that an email sent to Powers by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, about an applicant was not provided in response to a later Tribune records request. These two emails formed the basis for Hall’s initial allegations of undue political influence in UT-Austin admissions.

Some UT System regents, and more recently, Cigarroa, have not seemed satisfied with internal policing of such issues. 

After the system’s general counsel, Barry Burgdorf, conducted a review of the forgivable loan program, he deemed it was “not appropriate,” but he made a distinction between Sager’s approach and how the program was previously run under Powers. Some board members, including Hall, objected to Burgdorf’s findings and methodology; a slight majority of them decided to set it aside and seek an external review. Burgdorf left the system.

Zaffirini, who has been a vocal critic of some of the regents, drew a connection between this decision and the recent announcement that — following a system review of admissions at UT-Austin — there would be an external investigation.

“There was a study and they didn’t like those results. So they did another one and didn’t like those results. So they requested another one,” she said. “There are people who will not be satisfied until they get the results they want. They probably will never get the results they want, but they will keep acting until they can at least color them that way.”

Since he first dug in his heels and began looking into they open records requests, Hall has — over the objections of lawmakers and other regents — conducted personal investigations and raised concerns about, among other things, the ways in which UT-Austin handles fundraising accounting, awards certain contracts and documents its president’s travel.

Meanwhile, concerns have lingered at the university and among its supporters that Hall’s ultimate goal is to oust Powers. In another somewhat confusing back-and-forth, throughout the controversy, the chancellor has at times privately encouraged Powers to leave — and publicly recommended that he stay.

In an interview last week, Cigarroa said his recommendation that Powers stick around remains unchanged.

In September, when asked about his singular focus on the flagship, Hall said, “I wish I had not had to spend as much time as I have on UT-Austin.” He added, “I could sit there and do nothing, but that’s not what I signed up for.”

Perry has been supportive of Hall’s efforts to do something.

“The governor has always asked his appointees to ask tough questions and take the necessary steps to make sure the agencies and institutions they oversee are operating in the best interests of the students and taxpayers, and he supports the chancellor and board of regents’ decision to undergo this investigation,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in a statement.

Others have questioned whether Hall’s efforts — and the ensuing impeachment hearings — have merely been distracting. In a letter to UT System Board Chairman Paul Foster this week asking him to rein in individual regents, the leadership of the Texas Exes wrote: “For much too long, the news of … very positive accomplishments have been overshadowed by headlines of discord and discontent.”

With the results of three high-profile investigations — two into Hall and one inspired by him — still pending, there will be many more of those headlines before the saga comes to a close.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin andTexas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Paul Foster is a major donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/06/26/admissions-investigation-preceded-years-tension/.

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