The Austin Chronicle

Wallace Hall Has a List

By Richard Whittaker, September 4, 2014, 3:01pm, Newsdesk

It's all a conspiracy, according to Wallace Hall. In a pugnacious display this morning at the latest in the Texas Tribune's A Conversation With series, the embattled UT system regent painted himself as the last honest man in town, besieged by an unlikely coterie of lawmakers.

Hall, recently censured by the House Select Committee On Transparency in State Agency Operations for his alleged campaign of harassment against UT President Bill Powers, was on what moderator Evan Smith described, half jokingly, as his rehabilitation tour. Unfortunately for Hall, this stop came with a major admission: The Travis County District Attorney's office will bring a case against him before a grand jury imminently.

The event, which may have been intended to reburnish his credentials, might not have done Hall too many favors. The regent, who admitted that others may call him "an asshole, but I'm just very direct," whiffed on whether or not he illegally passed on student records, in violation of the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and why he failed to disclose multiple lawsuits during his original regent application. Hall presented his crusade as a just one, about open governance. Yet his definition of transparency in government seemed flexible: For example, he had no personal issues with University of Texas System Regent Alex Cranberg illicitly taping Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa in executive session.

Instead, Hall was hell-bent on throwing stones, painting a conspiracy against him among senior lawmakers that included Sens. Judith Zaffirini and Kirk Watson, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Speaker Joe Straus, and Reps. Dan Flynn and Jim Pitts, to defend Powers and cover up that they had influenced the UT admissions process (Zaffirini was present but, as Smith noted, she declined her normal seat at the front of the Austin Club, and sat farther away from Hall). He contested every point that was made by the investigating committee, even down to claiming he requested 100,000 pages of documents, not the 800,000 they said. Moreover, he denied that there was a deliberate campaign to remove Powers. "Where's the motive?" he mused.

(Well, beyond the obvious one that he was doing the bidding of Gov. Rick Perry to remove Powers, and install a new president more in tune with the governor's pro-business agenda, and one less likely to defend academic independence. In short, to allow Perry the same microcontrol over the state's flagship university that he already infamously enjoys over A&M.)

Hall also refused to back down on his campaign against Powers, declining to say whether the current UT president would still be in office when he is scheduled to retire on June 2, 2015. He even doubled down on his offensive, saying that Powers still does not have the confidence of the regents. Thus, clearly, ignoring that the regents don't seem to have much credibility with the lawmakers that approved their original nominations.

Moreover, there was one major underlying point. Even if lawmakers were sending letters supporting prospective students, that's not illegal. In fact, it's pretty standard to get letters of recommendation. After all, Smith said, universities have historically never just gone on test scores, and admissions offices have always been granted a degree of latitude in selection. "I'm not advocating against it," said Hall.

"You just don't like that kind of latitude," replied Smith.

Smith pushed Hall further. Had he, as a regent, proposed changing the rules so that interventions and letters of recommendations from lawmakers were barred? No. Had he looked for similar perceived transgressions in the other UT system campuses? No. Had he contacted regents in other systems to propose similar investigations? No. Presumably, he'll be working hard on more nuanced answers before his seemingly inevitable grand jury appearance.

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