Messing With Texas

The University of Texas’s Machiavellian War on Its Regent

Regent Wallace Hall uncovered a nepotism scandal at UT-Austin—and now the state legislature wants to bring him before a grand jury. Inside the twisted university scandal.

Continuing a year-long saga, University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall will face a grand jury, to determine whether he will be indicted on federal and state violations over his investigation into biases in the UT-Austin admissions system. Officials from the Travis County district attorney’s office hope to resolve the case by the end of the year.

Already, the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency in State Operations launched its own investigation in June 2013 after Hall requested a large number of student records from UT-Austin and openly attacked the school’s admissions department. The committee voted 6-1 to censure and admonish the regent. The censure itself was effectively an empty gesture—no more than a slap on the hand—but the committee also founds grounds for Hall’s impeachment and stressed that Hall could ultimately be removed from his post for abusing his powers as a regent.

Of the multiple counts that could be brought against the embattled regent, the most serious one concerns his possible violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The act maintains that certain types of student education records must be kept confidential unless the student gives permission for access to that information.

In 2013, Hall made several open records requests in the course of an investigation into admissions and fundraising scandals at the System’s flagship campus, UT-Austin. Hall has stated he asked that any documents protected by FERPA be excluded from the records he was to receive, but he was given FERPA-protected items by UT-Austin employees.The regent then allegedly handed sensitive information over to his attorneys. In doing so, he potentially violated federal and state laws by sharing some of the FERPA-protected records with an outside party.

The big twist is that by requesting those documents, Hall did in fact uncover a nepotism problem plaguing UT admissions. His probe discovered that the children of some Texas legislators had been admitted to UT’s law school even though their academic statistics were not on par with other accepted students.

That kind of bias should outrage the UT community—but most of the anger has been directed towards Hall, rather than towards the admissions department that gave preferential treatment to Texas’s elite. Now, alongside possible impeachment, Hall may face criminal charges as a result of his probe. The UT-Austin student community, university employees and legislators have rallied behind the University’s administration and condemned Hall’s behavior. “Something must change, and I urge you to take the selfless step to benefit the UT system and to resign immediately,” said UT System Board of Regents Chair Paul Foster.

Complicated Texas politics are behind the extreme reaction against Hall. Critics claim that Hall’s appointment by Gov. Rick Perry to the board of regents was made with the sole intent of finding dirt that would help remove UT’s current president, William Powers Jr. Perry and Powers are publicly known to be at odds, since Powers has been reluctant to implement pro-business educational reforms that Perry sought, including one developed by a good friend and donor to Perry.

The evidence suggesting Perry has been the puppet master trying to use Hall to oust Powers, however, is scarce and highly circumstantial. System regents, who tend to be experts in business rather than academics, are always appointed by the governor; often, appointees are donors to the governor’s war chest. The politicization of public higher education in Texas is hardly new.

What’s more, it is well within Hall’s rights as regent to investigate wrongdoing within the university system and to look into whether Powers had overseen unsuitable admissions decisions. Hall even made it clear that his problem is less with the preferential admissions, but with the lack of transparency. “If we want Senators and House reps to have the ability to get people into universities, let’s just be upfront about it,” Hall told Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune during an interview. Insufficient transparency in the UT admissions process is a serious concern that goes beyond politics. All students and faculty in the UT community should support the cause of fairness in admissions.

The public dialogue surrounding the case has been focused on whether or not Halls’ records request was burdensome and whether he is trying to oust President Powers. But those questions have already been asked and answered. Yes, Hall’s records requests were costly to fulfill, and Hall has stated that Powers was an obstruction to the governance of the board of regents. We need to focus on the favoritism Hall uncovered. People should be outraged that academically qualified students who would have contributed to the law school’s outstanding legacy were possibly denied entry because they are not of noble birth. Why are we angry at the man who called this abuse to attention, rather than people perpetuating it?

The unspoken controversy surrounding Hall lies in that he is challenging the status quo, which is cherished in Texas. Sure, Hall could have been more polite and subtle in his mission. But an absence of niceties nor an unwillingness to conform is not a legitimate cause for impeachment.

Hopefully, Hall’s actions will not have been in vain. The UT community should look past this facade of controversy and recognize the need for a more transparent educational system, especially in the admissions process, which has long been shrouded in mystery for many students.