UT regents briefed behind closed doors on Muny, Brackenridge Tract

The agenda for a telephone meeting of the University of Texas System Board of Regents today included this intriguing item: “Discussion regarding legal issues related to the utilization of the Brackenridge Tract, including Lions Municipal Golf Course.”

Alas, the matter was discussed behind closed doors, with not a word mentioned or any action taken in the public portion of the meeting.

The National Register of Historic Places marker at Lions Municipal Golf Course in west Austin, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
The National Register of Historic Places marker at Lions Municipal Golf Course in west Austin, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Just before the meeting, I bumped into UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves, who was carrying a binder of paperwork for his presentation, but he didn’t take me up on my invitation to spill. Ditto for his posse of sorts, which consisted of Patti Ohlendorf, the university’s vice president for legal affairs, and Richard Suttle, a local development lawyer.

The future of the 141-acre golf course along Lake Austin Boulevard in West Austin is uncertain. The UT board voted in 2011 against renewing the city’s lease for the course, known as Muny, when it expires in 2019. That vote wasn’t surprising in light of a 2009 system-commissioned plan that said Muny and other portions of the university’s 350-acre Brackenridge Tract should be developed into a residential and commercial district with thousands of housing units as well as offices, shops, hotels, parks, trails and even a yoga pier.

But the calculus changed this summer when the National Park Service added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places, citing its distinction as one of the first, if not the very first, municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated.

I asked UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven where things stand.

“I’m part of the discussions, but President Fenves and UT-Austin lead the effort on this,” McRaven said. “He will take into consideration as he does with everything all of the issues that are out there on the historical designation. He will work with the city and he continues to work with the Board of Regents to make sure that they are well-informed. So I think the process is moving along nicely, actually.”

Mayor Steve Adler has called Muny “one of those pieces of property that we cannot lose.” No details of discussions between the city and the university have emerged publicly.

McRaven said Fenves “will work with the city in a way that is cooperative, that is respectful, recognizing that we have a mandate through Col. Brackenridge’s will to monetize the property for the good of the University of Texas.”

Actually, George Brackenridge, a regent and banker  who donated the tract in 1910, wanted it to become the main campus. That didn’t happen. Fenves has said that his goal is to “honor the civil rights history of the site while fulfilling our fiduciary obligations to the university and the state of Texas.”

Asked whether some sort of educational exhibit or museum, as advocated by some activists, is in the cards, McRaven replied: “You are not going to get that answer out of me. This is between the University of Texas and the city of Austin right now. We’ve got a lot of options, and I think the discussion between UT-Austin and the city has got to go on.”

Gov. Abbott weighs in — critically but not all that clearly — on ‘sanctuary campus’ movement

Did Texas Gov. Greg Abbott open a new front in the “sanctuary” places debate with a tweet in which he pledged to cut funding for any state campus that establishes such status? Hard to say.

Here’s what the governor posted to Twitter on Thursday:

“Texas will not tolerate sanctuary campuses or cities. I will cut funding for any state campus if it establishes sanctuary status.”

Neither Abbott nor his office defined sanctuary status or explained exactly how he would cut funding.

He presumably was responding to petitions circulating in Texas and elsewhere in support of students who entered the country without legal authorization. The petitions are fueled by the election of Donald Trump, who said during his campaign for the White House that he would do away with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA, a signature initiative of President Barack Obama that gives young people temporary protection from deportation as well as permission to work.

More than 1,000 faculty members, students, staff members and alumni have signed an online petition calling on Texas State University administrators to “immediately establish our academic institution as a sanctuary campus.” Earlier this week, Texas State President Denise Trauth said she was reviewing the matter to determine the university’s role, adding that she is “staunchly committed to our core values that include diversity, equality, and inclusion.”

An online petition calling on administrators to establish the University of Texas as a sanctuary campus has more than 2,000 supporters. UT President Gregory L. Fenves told student leaders Thursday that the university has no legal authority to become a sanctuary campus but noted that he has signed a letter supporting DACA, as have more than 400 other leaders of colleges and universities, including UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven.

“We protect all student information” under the federal student privacy law, Fenves told student leaders, according to an article in the Daily Texan. “That is all information including immigration status, so that information is not available without going through a legal process.”

Any public university president in Texas likely would incur wrath from Abbott and some Republican leaders in the Legislature if he or she went as far as Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, a private Ivy League school.

“The University of Pennsylvania will not allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)/Customs and Border Protection (CBP)/U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on our campus unless required by warrant,” Gutmann said in a message to the university community this week.