2 UT regents, 2 former board chairmen side with Wallace Hall in admissions records lawsuit

First, the state attorney general sided with University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall Jr. in his court battle to obtain records of an investigation into admissions improprieties. Now, two frequent Hall allies on the Board of Regents and two former chairmen of the board have thrown in with him.

Regents Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich, along with former chairmen Charles Miller and Gene Powell, filed a friend-of-the-court brief Thursday backing Hall’s lawsuit against UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven. The chancellor contends that Hall is not entitled to see confidential student records of the investigation into favoritism in admissions at UT-Austin.

“The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (‘FERPA’) does not trump the need for individual regents to have access to such information for purposes of fulfilling their duties and responsibilities as Regents of the UT System,” lawyers for the four wrote in the brief. “While universities’ misapplications of FERPA to avoid disclosing negative or embarrassing information to the press have become increasingly common over the past several decades, this is the first time an educational institution has invoked FERPA against its very own regent. ”

McRaven’s lawyers contend that Hall is seeking “unfettered access” that does not meet the federal standard of “legitimate educational interest” to warrant granting him access to private student files underlying the admissions investigation.

New York City-based Kroll Associates Inc., which was hired by the UT System, found that then-UT President Bill Powers sometimes ordered students admitted, despite subpar academic records, at the urging of legislators, regents, donors and other influential people.

“That a regent has a legitimate educational interest in personally identifiable information for purposes of admission standards and for assuring that UT’s employees are behaving in an honest and above-board way should be unquestionable, but the UT System has taken the novel position that Regent Hall does not have a legitimate educational interest,” the brief by the two regents and two former board chairmen said.

State Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a friend-of-the-court brief in March urging the 3rd Court of Appeals to rule in Hall’s favor. Hall appealed to that court after Scott Jenkins, a state district judge in Travis County, threw out his lawsuit, essentially agreeing with the chancellor that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over this sort of dispute.

Hall hopes to get a final ruling in the case by Feb. 1, when his six-year term on the UT board ends.

A&M’s John Sharp engages in self-deprecating and Longhorn humor

Aggie in Chief John Sharp, otherwise known as chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, couldn’t resist poking fun at an in-state rival on Monday when he announced plans for upgrading research and adding an education center at the system’s Riverside campus a few miles west of the College Station flagship.

The moment came in the opening passages of his speech at a meeting of transportation industry officials at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

First, though, Sharp engaged in a bit of self-deprecating humor, declaring that he would “stick to the script” that was written for him at the insistence of system officials who implied that “perhaps some of the speeches I give folk around here are not completely factual.”

Then, true to form, he went off-script.

 

“I give Aggie speeches, as I like to tell people, which are short and to the point, as opposed to Longhorn speeches which have a point here and a point here and mostly bull in between,” Sharp said, gesturing to the left and right. “So we’ll get right to this.”

Campus carry law kept this scholar from pursuing a deanship at UT

Would prospective faculty members shy away from the University of Texas as a result of a state law and a school policy that will permit concealed handguns to be carried in classroomssiva and other interior spaces?

UT President Gregory L. Fenves, who adopted the policy Thursday, saying the law gave him no choice, put it this way: “I’m very concerned about the effect of concealed carry on recruitment and retention. We will look at what adjustments can be made if there are problems.”

Although the rules don’t take effect until Aug. 1, the law has already had an impact on recruiting. Case in point: Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

Vaidhyanathan, who earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Texas and lived in Austin for 14 years, told me he was contacted in the fall by a search firm helping the university find a new dean for the Moody College of Communication. He was interviewed and told he would be brought back as one of the finalists.

But the concealed carry law weighed on him.

“Classrooms are a special place in the world, not unlike a church or a temple, where we can argue freely and frankly and be unafraid of the sort of change in the environment that a weapon brings,” Vaidhyanathan said. “If you’re in a heated discussion with students and you have the faintest concern that someone might be armed, you might dial back your emotion. It’s a chilling effect.”

Like many faculty members, he opposes guns in classrooms. And if he got the job as dean, he would feel compelled to side with faculty members of similar persuasion instead of enforcing the law.

“I would probably be fired immediately,” he said. “I told the search firm I was no longer interested in the position.”

A California reference echoes UT’s ‘changes the world’ slogan

My colleague W. Gardner Selby — he of PolitiFact Texas fame — noticed a familiar reference on the radio last week. He emailed me thusly:

“California: What starts here often changes the world” has been said on NPR at least the last couple days in connection with LA Times sponsoring the network’s Marketplace show.

Sounds a lot like the longtime slogan of the University of Texas: “What starts here changes the world.” Of course, the Texas version has a bit more swagger, with no “often” to hedge its bets.

I have no idea how the California version was coined, whether it’s the work of a copycat or a mere coincidence. Doesn’t really matter. I doubt that UT will be changing its slogan anytime soon. Back in May 2014, Adm. Bill McRaven, who would go on to retire from the military and become chancellor of the University of Texas System, gave it his endorsement during his commencement speech:

“I have to admit — I kinda like it.”

To UT Nobel laureate, campus carry intrudes on faculty rights

Steven Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 for his work related to the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle of the universe. On Monday he leafed through a copy of the journal “Physics Today” as he waited to turn to a more prosaic subject: the question of allowing concealed handguns in classrooms at the University of Texas.

Weinberg, who holds the Jack S. Josey-Welch Foundation Chair in Science at the university, left no doubt about where he stood when he rose to speak at a meeting of UT’s Faculty Council.

“I will put it into my syllabus that the class is not open to students carrying guns,” he said. “I may wind up in court. I’m willing to accept that possibility.”

Weinberg explained: “Many faculty, including myself, are scared of guns in the hands of students who may violently disagree” with a faculty member’s views. “It’s hard enough to recruit faculty who want to remain on the East or West coast. To tell them they have no power to keep guns out of their classrooms makes it that much harder.”

He added, “This is a question of First Amendment rights versus state legislation,” referring to Senate Bill 11, which was passed last year and expands campus carry rights for people licensed to carry a concealed handgun.

Weinberg urged UT President Gregory L. Fenves to adopt a university policy declaring “that no faculty shall be required to admit into his or her course students who intend to carry firearms.” That way, “students who feel an unaccountable obsessive urge to bring guns onto campus could simply choose” professors who don’t ban guns, he said.

Steven Goode, a UT law professor who led a university advisory panel on campus carry, said Weinberg’s approach would not pass legal muster. The panel’s recommendations to Fenves said concealed handguns could not be banned in classrooms because that would amount to a general prohibition of campus carry, which SB 11 forbids.

As for leaving the matter up to individual faculty members: “I do think it would amount to a general prohibition on campus carry,” Goode said, noting that the Faculty Council’s reaction to Weinberg’s proposal — sustained applause — suggested that many professors wish they could ban guns.

The notion of standing on First Amendment rights is “an illusion,” Goode added. “I don’t think you could find a single case that comes close to saying academic freedom applies in a situation like this.”

Weinberg replied that the issue hasn’t been tested in a federal court. “I think this is a constitutional right to free speech,” he said. “We should allow the courts to decide this issue.”

Higher education commissioner wary about expansion plans

Mediocrity. That’s one of Raymund Paredes’ biggest worries these days.

As Texas higher education commissioner, he knows that legislative appropriations haven’t kept pace with rising enrollments, inflation, demand for student financial aid and other costs. At the same time, a number of state universities are floating plans to add medical schools and, in the case of the UT System, a campus of yet-to-be-determined flavor.

If funding for higher education stays flat, such growth is a recipe for mediocrity, Paredes told news reporters in a conference call today.

“I’m worried about continued expansion of higher education programs . . . beyond the willingness of the state to support them,” he said.

Case in point: the UT System’s plan to establish a campus of sorts in Houston. The system’s Board of Regents signed onto Chancellor Bill McRaven’s plan in November by authorizing the purchase of 332 acres of mostly undeveloped land in the southwestern part of the city.

Meanwhile, the University of Houston wants to establish a medical school. Texas Christian University, a private school, and the University of North Texas, which is public, want to collaborate in establishing a medical school. Sam Houston State University wants to build one as well.

“We aren’t sure that we need new medical schools,” Paredes said. “Our research suggests that if we’re going to do one or the other it makes more sense to invest in graduate medical education” — residency slots for newly minted doctors undergoing additional training after medical school.

As for the UT System, it already has a strong presence in Houston, with its Health Science Center that includes a medical school and its MD Anderson Cancer Center. McRaven envisions adding a campus that would be an intellectual hub for education and research capitalizing on the energy, medical and other strengths of Houston. Myriad details have yet to be worked out.

Paredes said he understands why the UT System might want to expand its presence in Houston, which is the state’s largest city and the fourth-largest in the nation.

By the same token, the commissioner said, Texas is obliged under an agreement with the federal government to protect the interests of the historically black Texas Southern University in Houston and Prairie View A&M University, about 50 miles to the northwest. In addition, he said, the state wants to ensure a strong pathway for the University of Houston — which has protested McRaven’s plan loudly — to rise from its largely regional plane into the ranks of national research universities.