IN TEXAS AND across the country, too many college students are paying too much and learning too little, and not much is being done about it. Texas reformers have been pushing transparency legislation, with the hope of cultivating a better-informed public that will vote with its pocketbook for schools and programs that provide a sound return on investment. But if Wallace Hall, a transparency-championing University of Texas (UT) regent appointed by Governor Rick Perry in 2011, is successfully impeached by the Texas statehouse, reformers’ hopes may die with his ill-fated tenure.
Right now Texans are at war over higher education. Tuition prices at public universities in the state have increased around five percent annually every year since 1994. According to the Institute for Research on Higher Education, Texas “students and their families, already burdened by tuition hikes, have been forced to assume more responsibility for funding financial aid, too, through set-asides from tuition increases.” The effect is felt most by the middle class. Lower-income students have access to scholarships, grants, and other need-based aid. Higher-income parents have the luxury of being able to cut a check. Families in between are being squeezed.
Any number of factors have helped bring about this state of affairs: smaller teaching loads that allow tenured and tenure-track faculty members to concentrate on research while courses are taught by an ever-expanding number of adjunct instructors, burgeoning administrative costs, construction of increasingly lavish student housing and facilities. During the last decade, state funding for Texas public higher education has declined a modest 10 percent while average tuition and fees have jumped 115 and 61 percent respectively.
Meanwhile, as prices rise, the value of a university education is falling. A recent poll found that 90 percent of Texas voters believe we need to measure the effectiveness of the material learned in college, a point underscored by the fact that roughly half of recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Grade inflation is a problem too, both in Texas and nationally. In 1985 only 26 percent of grades issued to undergraduates at Texas A&M University were A’s; in 2011, this number had risen to 39 percent. Similarly, at Texas State University in 1960, only 14 percent of grades were A’s, but by 2007, A’s accounted for 35 percent. A transparency measure, the so-called “Honest Transcript Bill,” introduced earlier this year, would have required every public college and university student transcript to include, next to each of the student’s own grades, the average grade for the class in question. (If nothing else, such a requirement would help employers baffled by a plethora of applicants sporting near-perfect transcripts, and indeed Columbia University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Indiana, among others, have adopted similar measures.) Unfortunately, the bill passed in the State House all but unanimously, but the Senate did not take it up. Universities did not oppose the bill, at least not publicly; legislators say that the education lobby decried it behind closed doors, arguing that it would place too great a burden on college registrars.
Such opposition is, alas, all too typical of the obstruction practiced by those with a vested interest in maintaining the educational status quo. A genuine crisis exists in the world of Texas public university trustees, who are charged with ensuring, in the words of the American Council of Trustees, “both the fiscal well-being of the institution…and the quality of the education it provides.” For too many years, trustees, both in Texas and nationally, have neglected both of these responsibilities.
While the public is well aware of rising costs—it’s hard not to notice the steadily atrophying balance of your own checking account!—and even grade inflation, the opposition of the powerful education lobby exists just below the purview of the man and woman on the street. This is not because its leverage is a recent phenomenon. Legend has it that Frank Erwin, a regent of the UT system from 1963 to 1975, led the effort to establish as many UT branches in as many senatorial districts as possible. Be the legend apocryphal or not, by the time Erwin stepped down, the UT system had grown to 12 institutions. Today it enjoys the third largest endowment in the country. It comprises 216,000 students and 87,000 faculty and staff, and enjoys numerous large and active alumni organizations.
ENTER WALLACE HALL. According to his critics, he is the hatchet man for—at least in the standard and ultimately distracting media narrative—Rick Perry’s war on UT President Bill Powers. This summer, a House committee was formed to investigate whether articles of impeachment should be brought against Hall. Why? Legislators gunning for Hall’s impeachment have offered any number of reasons for their crusade, one of which has already been put to rest. Critics argued that, during the background check that Hall was made to undergo before assuming his regent position, he failed to disclose his involvement in several lawsuits—potential, they claimed, for a conflict of interest. But Hall has updated his records, and his accusers no longer allege any such conflict.
What really seems to motivate Hall’s foes is the fact that since becoming a regent he has made a large number of open-records requests of the institution under his charge. But here also the accusations have been shot down as quickly as they have been raised. When Hall’s investigation of the UT Law School’s forgivable-loans program was characterized as a “witch hunt,” Gene Powell, Chairman of the UT System Board, pointed out that this was not the case, that in fact it was only after UT’s internal investigation was concluded that regents learned of an anonymous letter detailing additional allegations. This, Powell wrote, “was a key factor” in the board’s eventual decision to authorize an outside investigation. When it was alleged that Hall’s records requests yielded no improvements at UT, Powell again rebutted, stating that Hall’s actions “have resulted in suggestions for process improvement and better governance.” Hall was charged by UT-Austin’s CFO, Kevin Hegarty, with receiving documents in violation of privacy laws. This charge was gainsaid by no less than the UT system chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa, stating that lawyers had vetted everything Hall received to ensure total privacy.
Given all of the above, one might expect the impeachment committee to have disbanded by now and Hall to be back in unpaid public service. But this has not happened. Instead, Hegarty was back in early August, alleging additional wrongdoing: Hall, he claims, is messy. Hegarty sent a letter to the UT System’s interim general counsel in which he asserted that documents obtained by Hall were returned “having been altered.” Further, the returned documents “were not kept in the original order.” Hegarty’s use of the word “altered” implies no actual wrongdoing. At worst Hall wrote notes (or perhaps doodled!)—on documents that he then returned in less-than-pristine order. That’s all, folks. Surely a polite note asking Hall to take better care of the paper he requests would handle this just fine. Right?
Wrong. Hegarty, on the grounds of Hall’s supposed alterations, has announced that all of Hall’s pending open-records requests are “cancelled, effective immediately.” This latest salvo, say Hall’s defenders, closes the circle, preventing Hall access to the very documents his requests for which had led to calls for his impeachment in the first place. But unlike lengthy impeachment deliberations, this latest move accomplishes immediately what some of Hall’s defenders think has been the agenda of his opponents all along—namely, allowing the baseball game to keep going without Hall as umpire.
But on August 15, the umpire struck back. In a letter to the impeachment committee, Hall’s attorney detailed the results of his previous records requests. Likely the most incendiary are the following:
Regent Hall found correspondence on behalf of a [state] Representative inquiring about the admission of the Member’s adult son or daughter to a UT Austin graduate school. Although the dean had previously stated the applicant did not meet the school’s standards and would need to either retake the graduate admission exam or attend another graduate school first, upon information and belief, the son or daughter was in fact admitted without retaking the test or attending another school.
Regent Hall found other correspondence in which a [state] Senator sought special consideration for an applicant who had been rejected, but was strongly supported by another Senator. In the communication, the Senator seeking special treatment reminded the UT Austin official of recent legislative action taken to benefit The University. Upon information and belief, the rejected applicant was subsequently admitted to UT Austin.
Hall’s defenders believe we are looking at something like the Texas doppelgänger of the 2009 University of Illinois “Clout Scandal,” in which a Chicago Tribune investigation revealed that students with connections to politicians and trustees were admitted despite their lack of requisite academic qualifications. The revelations led to the resignation of a number of those involved. At present it remains a matter of speculation whether Hall’s charges can be proven.
What is not speculation, though, is the larger issue here of which Hall is in some sense merely a symbol: the danger posed by lack of transparency to any organization responsible to the public. In this case, the absence of transparency precludes accountability on the part of trustees legally bound to oversee the institution and answer to the taxpayers who foot the bill. Such openness is an essential safeguard against inefficiency and corruption, and should be near-axiomatic after Enron, Worldcom, Penn State, and the above-mentioned Clout debacle. Those entrusted with oversight should be provided with maximum latitude in fact-gathering.
HALL’S BOMBSHELL ACCUSATIONS may dominate the Texas higher education landscape for some time. If he cannot prove his charges, the impeachment investigation will gather new steam, simultaneously draining the air from the transparency enterprise with which Hall has been identified. Should his charges stick, an honest man will have been vindicated. No small matter, that. As a result, there could ensue a good deal of what is euphemistically referred to as housecleaning.
Still, one wonders whether the Hall affair, whatever becomes of it, will ultimately serve as a distraction from the systemic crises in which Texas’s universities find themselves embroiled. Some reformers believe that if Hall’s name is finally cleared, universities and legislators might become more inclined to look sympathetically at transparency proposals aimed at addressing affordability and academic standards. Perhaps. But little improvement has occurred in the four years following the very example to which they point, the University of Illinois scandal.
Only time will tell how events play out here in Austin. But one thing is certain: While Texans sit enthralled by the coming clamor in the Capitol, too many students will continue to pay too much, and learn too little, and not much is being done about it.