“Transparency, accountability are crucial in higher education”

(From the Houston Chronicle):

By Thomas K. Lindsay

The Texas House is considering impeaching UT System regent Wallace Hall. The affair looks to be a case study in what happens when the higher education establishment confronts accountability. It also demonstrates why theTexas Public Policy Foundation has for years championed greater transparency, without which there cannot be full accountability to students, parents and taxpayers.

This would be the first impeachment of a regent in Texas history. Why now? Since being appointed a University of Texas System regent in 2011, Hall has made open-records requests in furtherance of his constitutionally mandated task of oversight of the institutions placed in his trust. The most-often cited reason for Hall’s deserving impeachment is the overly burdensome volume of these requests. The central question, then, is “How much constitutes an impeachable ‘too much’?”

The answer depends on the importance of the requested records. But, instead of investigating this key question, the UT System administration has proclaimed all of Hall’s remaining records requests “canceled, effective immediately,” thereby blocking access to the very information needed to judge whether Hall’s requests are in fact “too much”- and this, by the parties charging “too much.”

This unilateral action hides from public eyes the evidence required to weigh the validity of the leading rationale for impeachment. And all this is happening under the oversight of the select legislative committee on “transparency.”

Hall’s critics also charge him with “micromanagement” of the system. Charles Miller, a Texas member of theNational Commission on College and University Board Governance, and former UT System board chairman, finds the opposite, “The Texas Legislature has been micromanaging in University of Texas System business since the beginning of the 2013 session and the recent hearings just seem to be even worse.”

Four other accusations have been leveled, three of which – that his requests produced nothing valuable; that his insistence on a new investigation into UT Law School’s “forgivable-loans program” was unnecessary and vindictive; and that his requests violated privacy laws – were rebutted by none other than UT System ChancellorFrancisco Cigarroa, and then-board chairman, Gene Powell. The final accusation, that Hall failed to disclose fully in his regent background check his involvement in several lawsuits, has been subjected to the light of transparency by a recent study, which shows this standard is being selectively applied to Hall.

Further clarity emerges through simply tracing the timeline of events. State Rep. Jim Pitts’ prominence in the impeachment drive brought him to the attention of Kevin Williamson, a UT alum and National Review columnist, who asked Pitts recently whether he was the representative alleged by Hall’s attorneys to have illegitimately influenced administrators to get his previously rejected son into UT’s Law School.

Pitts, a Republican representing Waxahachie, labeled Wiliamson’s question “disgraceful.” Nevertheless, he announced that he was stepping down within 24 hours of Williamson’s inquiry. A few days later, Pitts confessed to having written a letter for his son, but denied this was illicit. According to the Texas Tribune, Hall’s attorneys rejoined that “that they were discussing actions beyond mere letter writing,” charging Pitts engaged in “direct intercession with senior university officials,” leveraging his clout as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which decides how much Texas universities receive from taxpayers.

Given what Hall’s fulfilled records requests already show, justice to taxpayers and students requires full disclosure of all emails between legislators and senior administrators. Without it, Texas must forever battle the perception that the “transparency” committee shut the door on transparency to cover up the Texas doppelganger of the University of Illinois’ “Clout Scandal.”

Happily, not all seem intent to close the door on transparency. UT System Chancellor Cigarroa should be commended for actions testifying to his conviction of the legitimacy of what Hall has discovered. Cigarroa has ordered a formal inquiry into the possible clout scandal. Cigarroa’s path is the right one to take – the board, which constitutionally governs the system, will govern itself through his approach.

The wrong path is to rush to “criminalize” transparency. Such a course is poison to healthy democratic discourse, which requires that taxpayers have the full facts regarding the institutions they fund. Sadly, the damage done is already palpable: Whether Hall is exonerated or not, the effect these proceedings will have is clear. Prospective regents – fearing becoming collateral damage in the war between accountability and the establishment – will self-censor.

After recent corporate and university scandals, one would think that board members intent on asking tough questions would be applauded. Instead, the Legislature may dance the two-step around transparency, all in an effort to defeat one man. If they are successful, it won’t be Hall alone who loses. It will be every Texas student, parent and taxpayer.

What price, victory?