Lawmaker: UT regent’s silence a ‘slap in the face’

PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Facing an extraordinary threat of impeachment, University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall received a fresh scolding Wednesday from lawmakers who blasted “maverick” conduct and questioned his secretive talks with the agent of Alabama football coach Nick Saban.

Hall didn’t attend the latest investigative hearing at the Texas Capitol with his job on the line. That only further angered a bipartisan House committee weighing accusations that Hall misused his office by embarking on an obsessive campaign to oust Austin campus President Bill Powers.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Republican state Rep. Dan Flynn, chairman of the House Select Committee on Transparency.

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More than 30 years have passed since a House committee last recommended impeaching a state official, and Hall could be the first regent to be impeached. It will likely be months before the panel makes a decision.

Democrat Carol Alvarado, who co-chairs the committee, said after eight hours of testimony Wednesday that the panel will now put their findings in a report that should be drafted in the next month or so.

Allan Van Fleet, Hall’s attorney, did not immediately return an email Wednesday seeking comment.

The turmoil is part of a two-year power struggle at UT Austin, one of the nation’s largest campuses. Speculation about Powers’ job quieted last week after Powers received a cautious endorsement from his frustrated chancellor, who acknowledged a “strained” relationship between two of the state’s most powerful higher education leaders.

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Powers testified that the animus surrounding UT has affected retaining academic talent and even cost the football team a top recruit, though he didn’t say who.

Powers has led the 50,000-student campus since 2006 and is popular among faculty and lawmakers. But his vision and performance has clashed at times with regents, including Hall.

Hall has also drawn scrutiny for private meetings about Saban possibly coming to Texas to replace football coach Mack Brown.

Hall never told Powers about conversations, first reported by The Associated Press, between Saban’s agent and regents in January. Hall had informed others, including former UT regent chairman Gene Powell. House members and UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa Wednesday suggested it was inappropriate to leave Powers in the dark.

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More serious to the committee are accusations that Hall abused open records laws with requests for more than 800,000 pages of documents. Hall’s attorney has said his client has raised important questions about political influence over university admissions, fundraising and the law school loan program.

But Cigarroa described the volume of the requests as disruptive and said it drained morale across the UT system.

“It wasn’t work as normal. You basically had to lift people and say, ‘We will get through this,'” Cigarroa said.

Under the surface of the acrimony at UT is Powers’ critical view of proposed higher education changes backed by Gov. Rick Perry, who appoints the regents and has pushed universities to run more efficiently and graduate students in less time.

Discord has also spread to Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M University, where faculty last week bristled at perceptions of political interference after Perry publicly supported a non-academic for interim president.

A&M regents on Saturday instead selected the faculty’s choice, Mark Hussey, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Cigarroa testified that Perry has never come to him about firing Powers. Two former UT regents who described Hall’s one-man investigation as unusual also rebuffed suggestions that Perry ordered the UT system to make changes.

Powers said he hasn’t spoken with Hall in months and hasn’t seen indication that his tactics will change. Powers acknowledged a bloc of regents want him gone.

“Some of them don’t want me to be president. That’s not very pleasant,” Powers said. “They have their reasons.”

Hall had previously expressed willingness to testify but wanted to do so under subpoena, which could afford him some legal protections. Van Fleet told the committee this week that Hall wouldn’t testify due to “confusion” about lawmakers’ intentions.

If the House committee recommends impeachment, the matter would go to the full House.