Campus Scenes

The University of Texas Show Trial

A research school condemns regent research.

By 4.16.14

Earl McGeehe (Creative Commons)
Send to Kindle

From the way the University of Texas at Austin’s boosters latch on to a bit of marketing jargon, bragging about their school’s invented standing as a “nationally recognized tier one research institution,” you’d almost think the term meant something. The truth is that the state’s best attempt at a public university ranks fifty-second in the nation.

So the school effaces its conspicuous mediocrity by talking up its research, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year supporting its globe-spanning research projects and world-class research libraries filled with millions of volumes (of research, for researchers). In one five-minute promotional video, I heard the word research 33 times.

The university’s president, Bill Powers, is the chair of the nation’s largest association of research universities, and his supporters hold him out as a champion of free inquiry. So it’s no small irony that this cult of research has waged a brutal campaign against a reform-minded university regent named Wallace Hall with this accusation: He has been doing too much research.

Hall didn’t need so much as an inter-library loan for his research project. He wanted to look through two file cabinets in an administration building—the files where the university kept its responses to public records requests. Powers and his crooked allies in the Texas Legislature have turned this into grounds for impeachment, and even referred their findings this week to the Travis County District Attorney’s office for one of its infamous politically driven criminal investigations.

The national press has mostly ignored the story, for which Republican Party loyalists can be thankful, as it’s the GOP that is putting on this show trial. Though outsiders imagine that Texas is run by conservatives, the truth is that the state legislature is controlled by a man named Joe Straus, who sold out his party to become Speaker of the House with the votes of the Democratic caucus and a handful of “moderate” Republicans, whom he then appointed to positions of power.

One of the perks of that power is, apparently, being able to pull strings with Powers on admissions to UT, particularly to its law school. Nobody was paying much attention to Hall’s research project until he came across scores of emails and letters from state legislators and a former U.S. senator trying to bypass the admissions process for their favored candidates.

It was state Rep. Jim Pitts, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who first called for Hall’s impeachment. A few months later, Pitts announced his retirement after it was discovered that he had written to Powers and the dean of the law school on behalf of his son Ryan, whose scores of 155 and 147 on the LSAT were way below UT standards.

Ryan got in, but like the children of two other state lawmakers, he has struggled to pass the bar since he graduated. Ryan, Jeffrey Carona, and Carlos Zaffirini, Jr. have failed the Texas bar exam eight times between them, while 95 percent of their classmates pass it on the first try.

Straus, the speaker, has admitted that he’s trying to protect lawmakers from Hall, yet nobody in the state media has shown much skepticism about a series of impeachment hearings held last winter. I blame a mix of bovine incuriosity and a bias against conservatives so strong that it gets journalists to betray their professional commitment to transparency without even realizing it.

The impeachment hearings were turned into a report published last week by prosecuting attorney Rusty Hardin finding—surprise—that there exist grounds to impeach Hall. The main accusation is that Hall’s “unreasonably burdensome, wasteful, and intrusive requests for information” caused the University of Texas to produce around 100,000 pages of records. Rusty Hardin needed to produce 150,000 pages of records to be able to denounce Hall in those terms, but nobody seemed to mind.

“Hall’s most questionable actions,” Hardin says, are these: “disclosing confidential student information, pressuring Committee witnesses to change their testimony, and burdening UT Austin with impossible document production demands.”

Most of those “impossible” demands could have been met by opening the two file cabinets, but UT authorities took the position that a regent didn’t even have clearance to have the records, while undergrad work-study employees did. The kids would need to review and copy those files page by page before they could authorize their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss to see them.

Hall eventually was furnished with unredacted versions of many of those records, which is where the second charge of “disclosing confidential information” comes in. These Javerts have taken the position that their favor-seeking emails are actually covered by federal student privacy statues, so Hall must have broken the law by showing them to his defense attorney and an investigator for the state Attorney General’s office.

The final serious accusation, Hardin says, is that Hall pressured UT’s recordkeeper to change the testimony he gave to a legislative committee considering impeachment. Apparently it was by telepathy, as there’s no record of Hall contacting the man. This recordkeeper, named Kevin Hegarty, is the guy who had been obstructing Hall’s inquiries for a year and a half.

When Hegarty testified that Hall had required some 800,000 pages of record production, it was obvious that he was serving up Exhibit A for the charge of undue burdensomeness or whatever they’re terming it. The chancellor’s office reckoned the page count was under 100,000, and when Hegarty was pressed to substantiate his figure, he could do no more than insist it was his “best estimate.”

Hardin levels other accusations against Hall, but he admits these are even less serious.

While legislators have been getting headlines with their show, the UT chancellor’s office has been quietly finishing an inquiry into admissions favoritism. Almost nobody wants the results made public, or for the board of regents to order a full investigation. Politicians and editorial boards are telling the regents to move on, to put the divisiveness behind them.

The question is whether enough of them have the courage and integrity to defend the principle behind all that talk of research—the principle of free inquiry, of pursuing the truth wherever it lies.

Academics often pay eloquent tribute to that standard. Let’s see if any of them mean it.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Jon Cassidy is the Texas bureau chief for Watchdog.org.