(From the Austin American-Statesman):
By Ron Trowbridge
Suppose the state Legislature told the Austin American-Statesman that it may not use the Open Meetings Act or the Freedom of Information Act to ask too many questions of the University of Texas at Austin. The newspaper would go rightly ballistic. Yet that is precisely what the Legislature is punishing Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr. for doing. The public and regents, representing the public, have the right to know how a public institution is spending taxpayer money.
No doubt many Texans believe at first blush that Hall went too far in his “burdensome” request for voluminous documents at UT. But once Texans study the matter, most will conclude that the Legislature has handled the matter poorly. The Legislature’s cure is worse than the disease, with the very real potential of harming all universities and colleges in Texas.
The Legislature employed attorney Rusty Hardin in the investigation of Hall’s activities. He recently completed his report, citing allegations but emphasizing that he is “not willing to say, ‘Wallace Hall committed a crime.’” Nonetheless, the Legislature chose to send Hardin’s report to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to investigate the possibility of criminal activity by Hall.
Such action has a chilling effect on regents. With the threat of a Legislature’s investigation into an alleged regent’s abuse, no regent or trustee hereafter will dare to take on the Legislature, its attorneys, or even the university. These regents have been eviscerated.
The Legislature has established other terrible precedents. The precedent of legislative power will preclude transparency and accountability at the university. The precedent of legislative power will also tell the university that it can run the school any way it wishes—with impunity.
The case is much larger than Wallace Hall’s because of these legislative precedents. Literally every regent and trustee in the state of Texas could be micromanaged by these precedents. Regents and trustees could be eviscerated in their statutory authority and fiduciary responsibility to set policy, oversee finances, and govern with general oversight. They may ask questions of the administration, but not too many. How many is too many, and by what standards?
Derek Bok, president of Harvard for 20 years, rightly observed that a trustee is to be a “mediating agent” between the interests of the university and the interests of the public that put that trustee in office in the first place. A trustee is to be both a cheerleader and a governor. But the Legislature’s actions suggest that a regent or trustee should primarily be just a cheerleader. They should not rock the boat too much or take their public role too seriously.
Wallace Hall had good reasons for probing investigations into UT’s affairs: a Texas law school dean received a forgivable loan of $500,000. A high-level Texas legislator used his clout to get his son admitted to law school—a son who had already been denied admission to that law school. It is also alleged that white male law professors were paid higher salaries than female law professors. Is that true? I don’t know, and we may never know, especially if the Wallace Halls are jettisoned.
The Legislature’s actions created other damage: they in effect deny regents and trustees the statutory authority and fiduciary responsibility to set policy and to govern—what they were put in office to achieve. These actions and chilling threat of retaliation also deny regents freedom of speech and inquiry. And in an awful irony, these legislative actions and threats deny regents access to Open Meetings Act inquiries, which the public and the media can use at will and without limitation.
Wallace Hall has been more sinned against than sinning. And the Legislature can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars—taxpayer money—on attorneys, while Hall has to spend his own money to defend himself.
We should err on the side of a regent’s legal authority and fiduciary responsibility to probe deeply into the massive activities of a huge public university.
Ron Trowbridge is a Trustee of the Lone Star College System in Texas.