Concerns That Regents Are Micromanaging Colleges

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Dan Branch, the Dallas Republican who is the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, worries that the 2013 legislative session could become a repeat of 2011, when his agenda was overshadowed by tensions between university system regents, academics and lawmakers over questions of governance and reforms.

The situation became so heated that a special House-Senate oversight committee was formed to hold public hearings on the way higher education institutions in Texas were governed, and how reforms were being carried out. Nearly two years later, Mr. Branch said he had believed that the controversies had subsided. He pointed to signs of progress, like the public, data-rich Web sites recently started by a number of state university systems to make their procedures more transparent.

"So, I thought we were going to get back to regents managing chancellors, who then manage their institutions based on these dashboards," Mr. Branch said this week. "But it seems to me that we've gone back to what some people call micromanaging."

The early rumblings of another turbulent session for higher education recently began, set off by lawmakers' accusations that regents of the University of Texas System -- all appointed by Gov. Rick Perry -- are "micromanaging" its flagship institution. But regents and system officials, while acknowledging a more aggressive style than previous Boards of Regents, balk at that characterization.

The joint oversight committee has already been renewed, with Mr. Branch and the new Senate higher education chairman, Kel Seliger, Republican of Amarillo, as co-chairmen.

Mr. Seliger was blunt about its intended focus.

"This sort of thing comes up, and we find other systems with glitches and upheavals occasionally," he said, "but right now it's the University of Texas."

Senator Judith Zaffirini, Democrat of Laredo and a member of the oversight committee, said that micromanagement was, in fact, "absolutely" occurring at U.T.

"I've heard that there are some regents who are still skipping over the chancellor and over the president to go directly to deans or other personnel and issue directives," Ms. Zaffirini said. "I thought lessons had been learned, but obviously not."

The strain between the University of Texas System and its flagship university returned to public view last month when the University of Texas at Austin's president, William Powers Jr. -- who is widely believed to be in the cross hairs of some U.T. regents -- was honored on the Senate floor. (The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.)

"I believe in reform. I know Bill Powers believes in reform," said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. "That's why I'm particularly troubled when I see U.T. regents going around this man and this administration."

The remarks set off a flurry of activity, culminating with the reconstitution of the committee. Mr. Seliger also filed a bill that would require regents to complete ethics training and receive lawmakers' approval before being allowed to vote on personnel and budgetary issues. It also clarifies that duties not designated for the Board of Regents or the U.T. System are reserved for the institution.

Some view the bill as a rebuke. "If members were comporting themselves with principles of good practice, it wouldn't be necessary to legislate board behavior," said Richard Novak, a senior vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Mr. Seliger said that the bill, which he is open to adjusting, "is not designed to be severe or punitive." And he said the oversight committee was not trying to reduce the regents' authority.

"If the Board of Regents call the chancellor tomorrow and tell him they want Britney Spears to be the next president of the institution, that's who it will be," he said. "It may not be good judgment, but it's absolutely within their right."

But opinions vary on whether regents are engaging in productive behavior and following the proper chain of command.

"The important thing is that the regents don't run the individual institutions," Mr. Seliger said. "Has there been micromanagement? I don't know that and I wouldn't accuse anybody of it, but given the concerns that have been expressed to me, it's worth asking the question."

Gene Powell, the chairman of the U.T. System Board of Regents, indicated that he welcomed the opportunity to answer. "As regents, we all look forward to a forum in which we can have a public conversation about our efforts and how those efforts are now on the leading edge of higher education in America," he said.

U.T. System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa conceded that there had been a culture shift on the U.T. board since 2011. "There has been a kind of new steady state of a lot of questions being asked, and we had to get used to that," he said. "You know, it made me uncomfortable two years ago until I got used to it. I'm not defensive about it anymore."

He observed that technology has heightened expectations for easy access to information, which may be altering the culture on governing boards.

"If a board is focused on policy, it is O.K. for them to ask a lot of questions to find the best policy," he said.

Some of those questions can create significant demands on university staff.

Wallace Hall, a U.T. regent who was appointed in 2011, recently caused raised eyebrows by asking U.T.-Austin to provide him with information about all open-records requests for a two-year period. On top of an unusually heavy demand by the regents for additional data, those documents filled nearly 40 boxes. Mr. Hall did not respond to requests for comment.

Alex Cranberg, a U.T. regent who was also appointed in 2011 and has also made numerous data requests of U.T.-Austin, disputed the idea that such inquiries constituted micromanagement.

"Obtaining information is not in itself micromanagement unless the information is used in the attempt to control, as opposed to an attempt to make better-informed policy, governance and accountability decisions," Mr. Cranberg said.  

Mr. Novak said it was important that such requests follow proper channels and have clear objectives. "Regents shouldn't be on any kind of fishing expedition," he said.

In the Capitol, there are signs of tempers cooling. Mr. Dewhurst said on Wednesday that he believed the regents and university administrators were "both well-intentioned and believe in the value of reforms."

Mr. Seliger and Mr. Branch say they hope to avoid the friction of the last session.

"Where I'm trying to get is to the right balance between meddling and micromanaging, which we don't want, and being asleep at the wheel, which we don't want," Mr. Branch said. "I'm trying to find the sweet spot of governance."

rhamilton@texastribune.org

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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