UT Cover-Up?

A report in today’s Austin American Statesman touches on what may be driving attempts to silence a regent: the president of UT Austin allegedly bullied the system’s chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa, into quitting after starting to scrutinize a long series of scandals. Why legislators are covering up for the UT president goes to the heart of what might be the biggest higher-ed scandal in Texas’ modern history.

Simmering beneath the kangaroo-court show-trial of UT Regent Wallace Hall by the hand-picked committee of House Speaker Joe Straus has been their ever-present desire to keep Hall silent. The way Straus’ chairman, State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), ran the committee was to ensure that Hall was never offered the same legal protections nearly every other person involved was given by the committee.

Flynn provided a forum for bashing Hall (who was doing his constitutional job as a regent), but never provided a legitimate opportunity for Hall to explain his investigations into the operations of UT.

Under the Obama Administration’s (misguided) interpretation of federal education law, a university official — including a member of the board of regents — cannot discuss student records outside the walls of academia.

So why would that matter in this case?

Because it appears some legislators have been conspiring with UT Austin officials to get unqualified students admission to the state’s flagship university. The good folks at National Review and Watchdog.org have reported extensively on this, naming names of legislators apparently engaged in the practice.

Only when testifying under subpoena or in front of a court could Hall be reasonably comfortable in revealing the details of the clout-abuse scandal without worrying about threat of prosecution under the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the law. By withholding a subpoena, Flynn and the Straus committee prevented Hall from exposing the cozy culture of clout-abuse that seemingly exists between the Capitol and the Office of the President of the University of Texas.

Some members of the Texas Legislature want to make sure Wallace Hall never gets to speak. The last eight months of Flynn’s show-trial and character assassination against the regent have been designed to make a weaker man than Hall simply resign and go away. That way, he never gets to speak out.

Too bad for them Hall has made it clear he isn’t backing down. One way or another, he will be testifying and the facts will fly.

So what did UT President Bill Powers threaten (now former) UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa about? Was it the clout-abuse by the legislature? We know from news reports that Cigarroa was ready to recommend Powers be dismissed due to insubordination. For some reason, that recommendation changed after the threats reported today in the Statesman. What exactly were the nature of those threats?

And we know that after being (allegedly) bullied by Bill Powers, Francisco Cigarroa (Powers’ boss!) resigned.

(Ironically, you might recall that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has been one of Powers’ staunchest defenders. They routinely sit next to each other at bowl games and other public outings. Dewhurst interrupted the business of the Senate last year to chastise those asking questions about the scandals coming to light involving his travel buddy.)

And how many members of the legislature were actively involved in the clout-abuse, threats, and then the cover-up? We know that State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Highland Park), who is Straus’ higher-ed committee chairman, has been doing his best to look the other way. How many unqualified kids did Branch get into UT?

The cover-ups don’t end with clout-abuse. Texans have only this week learned that Bill Powers took more than $600,000 from a slush fund that’s under investigation for financial malfeasance and a payola scheme… the same payola fund former UT Law dean Larry Sager was fired for dabbling in. Who else has received big benefits?

There has been no legislative review of Powers’ questionable decision to direct more than $1 million in contracts to Accenture without getting approval from the board of regents. This comes on the heels of an embarrassing accounting scandal dealing with university fundraising.

And there is apparently a lot, lot more – including bizarre side-deals with well-healed UT donors, extravagant trips with unnamed officials, and junkets to the Caribbean and Europe disguised as “university business.”

That the UT president and his pals in the legislature are working so hard to cover up what’s been going on should be reason enough to warrant an investigation independent of the legislature.

In the e-mail to fellow UT regent Paul Foster, Wallace Hall wrote “enough has been said about our ‘reputation’ but not enough has been done to preserve our integrity.”

As Gov. Rick Perry prepares to again go on the national stage with a presidential run, he should demand an independent investigation of any threats made by Powers against system employees, about the abuse of legislative clout in the admissions process, and the very real probability of a cover-up.