Political favoritism in admissions to the University of Texas
A December 12, 2013 Regents Board meeting listed as an agenda item the "discussion and appropriate action related to recommendation by Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Chancellor concerning employment of Wililam C. Powers, Jr., as President of the University of Texas at Austin." State legislators previously instructed the board not to make personnel decisions related to anyone currently involved in legislative investigations -- including Powers. Speculation was that the future of Powers could impact whether Texas Longhorns football coach Mack Brown is retained. The Board met for four hours in an executive session closed-door meeting. Because of the posting of the agenda, regents could have taken action following the closed-door session. "I do not know if there was a specific purpose in mind for the agenda item. I’m sure it was discussed between the chancellor and the chairman," said Regent Alex Cranberg. State Senator Judith Zaffirini said she hoped the board would vote in favor of keeping Powers as University President.
At the meeting, the board did not take any action on Powers' employment. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told the Board that Powers needs to improve trust, respect and communication in dealings with regents and system officials. "I am hopeful that the strained relationships can be improved. It is my recommendation as chancellor that Bill Powers should continue his appointment as president of the University of Texas at Austin," he said. Cigarroa said that the relationship between himself and Powers had seen improvement. Powers said: "There was a question about my employment, it got resolved positively. It is very positive to get this behind us and move forward in addressing these issues that face our campuses and face the system."
After he was appointed in 2011, Hall began looking into what he believed to be clout scandals within the University of Texas system. Hall investigated the university's forgivable-loans program and admissions policies and preferential treatment to politically-connected individuals. Hall, as an individual citizen, filed a large number of FOIA requests with the University system after his inquiries via his role as a Regent were rebuffed. Governor Rick Perry and University of Texas President Bill Powers have differed on education issues, specifically tuition, graduation rates, teacher roles and research.
Hall filed requests of more than 800,000 pages, which some Texas administrators called an unnecessary burden. Hall has been accused of overstepping his authority in making demands on the University of Texas, Austin staff. Specifically, the allegations surround possible mishandling of private student information and providing inadequate information on his application to be a regent.
In July 2013, University of Texas Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Regent Eugene Powell responded to the ongoing investigation and negative remarks against Hall from some elected officials and University of Texas staff. Cigarroa said Hall was not allowed to access anything that was not reviewed by University lawyers to ensure they met federal privacy standards. In a July 15, 2013 letter to state representative Jim Pitts, Powell wrote: "Regent Hall's efforts extend to bringing the U.T. System into a competitive position nationally; especially related to offering blended and online learning opportunities to U.T. students. I would point out Regent Hall's excellent service to the Board in terms of time and energy. I appreciate his Board service and his dedication and hard work designed to fulfill his fiduciary obligations."
On August 5, 2013, Kevin Hegarty, chief financial officer for the University of Texas-Austin, announced that the records requests from Hall would be canceled immediately. The University of Texas is required to seek approval from Attorney General of Texas Greg Abbott regarding whether information could be kept confidential from a records request. The process often takes months to complete. In 2008, University of Texas Austin referred one request to Abbott's office. In 2013, it referred 84 different requests, according to the Dallas Morning News. Hegarty said that the university reviews requests prior to seeking an opinion from the attorney general. In August 2013, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa recommended a "targeted compliance review" of how officials at the University of Texas, Austin were handling public record requests. In August 2013, the University of Texas System Board of Regents approved two measures to reform problems that Hall had discovered in his investigations. The regents voted to enact a new policy regarding the relationship between universities and foundations. Additionally, the regents approved an audit into how officials respond to public information requests.
University of Texas School of Law
According to a report by Texas Watchdog in December 2013, Jeffrey Steven Carona, Carlos Manuel Zaffirini Jr. and James Ryan Pitts, all three children of Texas lawmakers at the center of the political favoritism scandal at the University of Texas, repeatedly failed the state's bar exam after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law, which is the highest ranked law school in Texas and placed at number 15 nationally. The University of Texas School of Law is known for preparing its students to pass the Texas bar exam. Out of the eight years prior to 2013, only 197 students out of 2,700 had to retake it, giving it a fail rate of just over seven percent. Additionally, the pass rate for all Texas law school graduates who took the exam in July 2013 was 88.74 percent, a rate much higher than most states. However, Carona, Zaffirini and Pitts, sons of state Senator John Carona (R), state Senator Judith Zaffirini (D) and state Representative Jim Pitts (R) respectively, had to take the bar 10 times between them, with only two eventually passing, leaving some doubt as to whether they should have been admitted to law school in the first place. State Representative Pitts, current chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, admitted to writing to University of Texas President Bill Powers on his son's behalf, and State Senator Zaffirini is considered the most influential voice on public universities in the Texas State Legislature, having previously chaired the Senate Higher Education Committee for four years as a Democrat despite Republicans holding the majority. State Senator Carona has donated over $30,000 to Zaffirini's campaign in recent years.
In December 2013, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced that the University of Texas System would be conducting a formal inquiry into admissions favoritism at the University of Texas, Austin. Specifically, the Chancellor's office is examining the qualifications of 70 undergraduate applicants and 16 law school students who were previously recommended by lawmakers. "I’ve got concerns that there are external influences involved in the admissions of students. I’m looking at a cohort of students. I’m looking at the process," he said while testifying to the committee during the Wallace Hall impeachment trial. Cigarroa was subpoenaed to testify about the University of Texas investigations.
In February 2014, the Texas Tribune released a PDF of an email from Judith Zaffirini to University of Texas President Bill Powers. In this email, Zaffirini first mentioned how much funding her committee had acquired for the university before shifting gears to the topic of a student's application. She wrote:
This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
|“||Senator Eltife asked me yesterday what was the appropriate way to recommend [name redacted] for co-enrollment at UT. [Name redacted] is a family friend of his who wasn’t admitted, but hopes to be admitted by way of co-enrollment. (I sent the information to you earlier.) Is this the best alternative, or are there others?"||”|
In response Zaffirini said "if this is what they’re citing, it’s ridiculous." The email was in reference to State Senator Kevin Eltife, who asked Zaffirini for guidance on how to best recommend a student for admission. In another email written on October 15, 2012, Zaffirini sent an email to Powers and University Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, recommending a student for admission.
- See also: Wallace Hall impeachment trial
Pitts acknowledged that he routinely writes letters to Bill Powers, President of the University of Texas, on behalf of select student applications. Specifically, he wrote a letter on behalf of his son after the University of Texas law school had initially rejected his admittance. "The letter I wrote for my son was pretty much a form letter," Pitts said in an October meeting of the Transparency in State Agency Operations Committee. These letters were sent to both the law school dean and the university president.
In November 2013 it was revealed that one of the letters Hall subpoenaed was sent by Judith Zaffirini to University of Texas Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. According to a public records request filed by Watchdog.org, the letter was sent on December 3, 2010 to Cigarroa on behalf of an applicant to the University of Texas School of Law. In his response, Cigarroa wrote, "I will convey your strong recommendation to President Bill Powers. I can assure you that he will receive careful consideration." The standard process is to send letters recommending applicants to the Law School Admissions Council.
The committee formed to investigate Hall began issuing subpoenas to University of Texas individuals in October and November 2013. The committee issued subpoenas for Dan Sharphorn, University of Texas Vice Chancellor and General Counsel; Francie Frederick, General Counsel to the University of Texas System Board of Regents; Barbara Holthaus, System Senior Attorney; and Hall, who was expected to testify at the December 10, 2013 meeting. However, only minutes after initially filing the subpoena for Hall, committee members suddenly recalled it. Carol Alvarado said the members acted too quickly without checking their schedule. The subpoena was issued for December 10, but no meeting was scheduled until December 18.
During testimony, Frederick said Hall may have been in possession of protected student information. "We failed by allowing this to happen," she said. During the meeting, committee member Trey Fischer asked whether possession of the document was a criminal violation. Sharphorn also testified at the meeting. Legislators also voted to issue subpoenas to Francisco Cigarroa and Bill Powers to appear at the December 18, 2013 meeting.
A January 2014 review by the law firm Hilder & Associates concluded that there was "no credible evidence of a violation of [the state government code] that would warrant a referral for criminal prosecution." The report concluded that Hall had a legitimate reason for having the documents in question. "In light of the fundamental role attorneys play, it would lead to an absurd result were it criminal for an official to provide student records to his or her attorney in the face of litigation, or anticipated litigation, involving these records," Philip Hilder wrote in the report. Hilder submitted the report to the legislative committee. The Board of Regents hired the firm to review whether Hall may have violated any federal privacy laws in his handling of student information. November 2013 testimony prompted committee-member Trey Fischer to request the inquiry. Committee member Dan Flynn said he was not surprised by the findings and was pleased the university counsel reached a conclusion.
On December 8, 2011, University of Texas, Austin Law School Dean Larry Sager resigned from his position. Bill Powers, University of Texas, Austin, President, demanded Sager's resignation regarding a forgivable loan scandal. The primary issue was the law school's salary stipends and "forgivable loans" that were meant as incentives to recruit and keep faculty. "The fact of the matter is, and there's no two ways about this fact, that I resigned now because I was asked to by the president of the university," Sager said.
A total of 22 professors, including Sager, received six-figure forgivable loans or other payments. At the time of Sager's resignation, 19 members of the law school faculty were paid more than $300,000 per year. From 2006-2011, the University of Texas Law School Foundation -- an entity that is legally separate from the law school -- gave out more than $4.6 million in forgivable loans. Sager himself received a $500,000 loan from the foundation.
Former University of Texas General Counsel Barry Burgdorf issued a report in November 2012 after investigating the forgivable loans program. In that report, University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall called the report "insufficient" and said that it did not provide the full story. In a July 2013 letter to State Representative Jim Pitts, University of Texas Regent Eugene Powell detailed a previously unrevealed letter regarding the forgivable loans program that was not included in Burgdorf's report. The letter, which was addressed to University of Texas Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, was written by several female faculty members of the law school requesting an investigation into "two hidden salary systems that our dean has used during the last five years to hide salary raises and to discriminate against women and minorities in our institution." The letter was reportedly forwarded to Burgdorf.
- Wallace Hall
- Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations (Select), Texas House of Representatives
- Impeachments in Texas
- Forgivable loans program at the University of Texas Law School
- University of Texas System Board of Regents "December 12, 2013 Meeting Agenda
- Texas Tribune "UT Regents to Discuss Employment of Bill Powers," December 9, 2013
- ESPN "Mack Brown's future in limbo," December 10, 2013
- Dallas Morning News "Could Mack Brown lose an ally? Texas' Bill Powers to be reviewed by regents," December 9, 2013
- Austin American Statesman "University of Texas regents to discuss Powers’ job status," December 9, 2013
- Austin American Statesman "UT’s Powers gets a lecture but keeps his job," December 12, 2013
- Houston Chronicle "UT President Powers ready to get back to work," December 12, 2013
- Daily Texan "While board takes no action on President Powers, Chancellor Cigarroa issues strong warning," December 12, 2013
- ESPN "Chancellor: Powers should keep job," December 12, 2013
- American Spectator "Transparency for Thee," October 25, 2013
- Daily Texas Online "Facing impeachment, Regent Wallace Hall defends actions in debate with Sen. Kirk Watson," September 28, 2013
- Austin American Statesman "Perry pans impeachment proceedings, defends UT Regent Hall," October 30, 2013
- Daily Texas Online "Former UT System vice chancellor alleges Regent Wallace Hall’s ‘clear intent to get rid of Bill Powers’," October 24, 2013
- Dallas Morning News "UT regent sought 800,000 documents, official says in impeachment hearing," October 22, 2013
- Texas Tribune "Pitts: Enough Evidence to Impeach UT Regent Hall," October 22, 2013
- Texas Tribune "UT System Pushes Back Against Criticism of Regent Hall," July 16, 2013
- University of Texas System "Letter from Eugene Powell to Jim Pitts," July 15, 2013
- Texas Tribune "August 6, 2013,"
- [http://www.dallasnews.com/news/state/headlines/20140105-fight-over-president-bill-powers-buried-university-of-texas-in-records-requests.ece Dallas Morning News " Fight over UT's Powers buried university in records requests," January 5, 2014]
- Watchdog.org "University of Texas regents show support for Wallace Hall," August 22, 2013
- Texas Watchdog, "Children of Texas lawmakers get into UT School of Law, but struggle to pass bar exam," December 18, 2013
- Watchdog "Chancellor is probing favoritism in UT admissions," December 19, 2013
- Watchdog "University of Texas clout scandal grows as new e-mails surface," March 4, 2014
- Texas Tribune "Lawmakers' Role in UT Admissions Under the Microscope," February 27, 2014
- Texas Tribune "Letter from Judith Zaffirini to Bill Powers on March 1, 2013," February 27, 2014
- Watchdog "Email from Judith Zaffirini to Bill Powers and Francisco Cigarroa on October 14, 2012," March 4, 2014
- National Review "The Ongoing Texas Travesty," October 23, 2013
- Watchdog "Lawmaker admits pulling strings on UT admissions," October 23, 2013
- National Review "The Curious and Curiouser Case of Wallace Hall," August 21, 2013
- Watchdog.org "Longhorns: Senator used clout in UT law school admissions," November 13, 2013
- Texas Tribune "UT Regent Hall Subpoenaed to Testify Before Committee," November 12, 2013
- Albany Times Union "Texas House committee subpoenas Hall for Dec. 10," November 12, 2013
- Texas Tribune "Committee Recalls Subpoena for UT Regent Hall," November 12, 2013
- San Francisco Chronicle "Texas House subpoenas Hall, but then recalls it," November 12, 2013
- Texas Tribune "UT System Lawyer: Hall May Have Shared Private Info," November 12, 2013
- Austin American Statesman "UT Regent Wallace Hall might have broken privacy laws, panel members suggest," November 12, 2013
- Dallas Morning News "UT Regent Hall didn't commit crime, university attorney concludes,"January 16, 2014
- Watchdog "UT Report: Charge against Hall is legally 'absurd'" January 14, 2014
- Texas Tribune "Report: Regent Didn't Violate Student Privacy Laws," January 15, 2014
- Texas Tribune Uploads "Hilder & Associates Report," January 13, 2014
- New York Times "University of Texas President Ends Tough Year With Yet Another Battle," December 15, 2011
- Texas Tribune "UT President Asks Law School Dean to Resign Immediately," December 8, 2011
- National Jurist "UTexas dean resignation raises questions about compensation practices," December 19, 2011
- Austin American Statesman "UT law dean forced to step down," December 8, 2011
- Texas Tribune "UT Law's Forgivable Loans to Faculty "Not Appropriate"," November 13, 2012
- Texas Monthly "Gene Powell’s Letter to Jim Pitts," July 16, 2013
- Texas Tribune "Wallace Hall: The TT Interview," June 25, 2013