UT board chairman treading carefully on matter of no black regents

Paul Foster, chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, apparently wasn’t satisfied with his explanation — and his apology — regarding the question of African Americans on that board during a state Senate hearing Thursday. So he released a statement Friday to “clearly articulate my beliefs in the importance of diverse representation.”

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The issue arose when Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, noted that there have been only 3 blacks on the UT board in 126 years.

Here’s how the exchange went:

West: “Do you think that perspective is necessary in this day and age to make certain that the decisions you are entrusted to make are made with the best information available in order to render a decision based on what the facts are?”

Foster: “I think that perspective is valuable, yes.”

West: “Do you think it’s necessary?”

Foster: “I don’t think it’s critical. But it’s very, very helpful.”

West: “I find it appalling that you sit up there and say that our perspective is not critical to your deliberations on your board.”

Foster: “I”m sorry if you took my statement that way. What I thought you were asking me was, is it critical that an African American be on the board? And all I was saying was I don’t believe that’s absolutely critical. I do believe that the perspective is critical. And I apologize if I misstated that, and I certainly apologize if I offended you.”

West: “I accept your apology. But African American perspective on every board of regents in this state is absolutely necessary.”

Here’s what Foster said Friday in his statement:

“I want to clarify my comments yesterday to Sen. Royce West regarding the importance of diversity on The University of Texas System Board of Regents. My initial response didn’t clearly articulate my beliefs in the importance of diverse representation.

“I unequivocally believe that a board that represents the people of Texas – a truly diverse body that brings multiple perspectives to every issue – is absolutely critical to the success of the UT System. While we, as regents, do not have the power to choose our own members and would greatly benefit from increased racial, ethnic and gender diversity on the board, we do ensure that our faculty and staff councils, advisory committees and working groups include diverse voices from varied backgrounds and we listen carefully to all of those perspectives.

“We have also supported and applauded a new policy implemented by Chancellor McRaven to increase diversity among our executive leaders at both the campus and system level – an issue we feel very strongly about. I can say with utmost confidence that all of members of the UT System Board of Regents carry out their duties with the best interests of our students, faculty and all Texans foremost in their minds.”

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott, whose three appointees two years ago to the UT board and three current nominees do not include any blacks, had this to say earlier this week: “Governor Abbott is proud of the individuals he has appointed to direct Texas’ higher education institutions, and he will continue to seek out willing public servants who not only share his vision for Texas, but also reflect the diversity of the state.”

Sen. West disappointed that Abbott didn’t name an African American to UT board

Two years ago, when Gov. Greg Abbott named three people to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, state Sen. Royce West expressed concern that none was African American but nevertheless voted for all three.rbb-senate-meeting-5

West, a Democrat from Dallas, noted that there have only been three African Americans on the UT board in its history. None of the three being confirmed by the Senate in March 2015 — David Beck, Steve Hicks and Sara Martinez Tucker — was black. West said he expected Abbott to name an African American during the next round of UT appointments.

Fast forward to this week. Once again, Abbott has named three people to the UT board. And once again, none is black. West made it clear, in a written statement and at a news conference Wednesday, that he isn’t happy.

“I could not be more proud of my former Senate colleague, Kevin Eltife, being named to the UT Board of Regents and have no qualms with the other selections,” West said. “But I feel that an opportunity was missed to add a perspective that one of Texas’ flagship institutions has been without for nearly four years. It is a void that cannot be addressed for at least another two years.”

Besides Eltife, Abbott has nominated Rad Weaver, a San Antonio businessman, and Janiece Longoria, a former UT regent. The trio will appear before the Senate Nominations Committee on Thursday.

“Governor Abbott is proud of the individuals he has appointed to direct Texas’ higher education institutions, and he will continue to seek out willing public servants who not only share his vision for Texas, but also reflect the diversity of the state,” said John Wittman, a spokesman.

West said he received assurances from Abbott’s office two years ago “that they’d make a good-faith effort” to select an African American for the UT board. The last black UT regent was Printice Gary, who served from November 2007 to May 2013 and who was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

“There is room at the table for the viewpoints of the many faces and ethnicities that are part of a population that is urban, rural and suburban and reflective of all walks of life,” West said. “How higher education will respond, guide and supplement the Texas workforce is critical and the University of Texas Board of Regents should be at the helm of these societal advances. The African American perspective is a functional component of Texas’ future that is too important to proceed without. I would hope that the governor will be more mindful of these considerations at the next and earliest opportunity.”


One of Abbott’s nominees for UT board once figured in a regent’s resignation

Most observers expect Gov. Greg Abbott’s three nominees for the University of Texas System Board of Regents to work cooperatively, with fewer fireworks, than the trio they would replace, assuming confirmation by the state Senate.

But one of Abbott’s picks, former state Sen. Kevin Eltife, once tangled famously with a regent who was also at the time chairman of the UT board’s investment arm.


It was February 2009, and Regent Robert Rowling and University of Texas Investment Management Co. CEO Bruce Zimmerman had been summoned to appear before the Senate Finance Committee for a dressing-down. A day earlier, then-Gov. Rick Perry and then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sent a letter to Rowling calling more than $3 million in bonuses to UTIMCO employees, including $1 million for Zimmerman, “irresponsible” when the multibillion-dollar higher education endowments overseen by the company had posted significant losses and the country was in a recession.

Never mind that the bonuses were based on investment performance during the year that ended months earlier, before the financial markets tanked. In fact, the returns were in the top quarter of comparable endowments and pension funds nationally, Rowling told senators. He said UTIMCO board members felt an obligation to award bonuses that were part of the pay packages negotiated with employees.

“We made a deal with these people, ” Rowling said.

That explanation didn’t sway the senators. And the harshest words came from Eltife, a Republican from Tyler, who directed some of his comments at Zimmerman.

“This is shameful, ” Eltife said. “Most people out there on the street are scared to death and we just paid you a million-dollar bonus.”

At that point, Rowling, a billionaire businessman from Irving who is one of the richest people in the state, abruptly said he would resign from the UT and UTIMCO boards. “Watching the way Mr. Zimmerman was treated at this morning’s hearing truly does meet the definition of ‘shameful, ‘” Rowling wrote in his formal resignation letter to Perry and Dewhurst.

There undoubtedly was some politics at play in this episode. Rowling had given more than $200,000 in campaign contributions and more than $100,000 to Dewhurst. And although he was a Perry appointee, Rowling was part of the campaign leadership team of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was planning a run for governor against Perry.


UT prof, students to study Obamas’ social media engagement

Twitter aficionado and soon-to-be-President Donald Trump won’t be the first White House occupant to use social media. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were active in cyberspace, and a University of Texas faculty member along with her graduate students will have a hand in studying the Obamas’ social media record.

Amelia Acker, an assistant professor in UT’s School of Information, and her students will plumb the Obamas’ social media archive with an eye toward measuring engagement, such as “retweets,” “likes” and “shares,” said J.B. Bird, a university spokesman. That research will also inform their efforts to discern the best practices for social media engagement by a public figure.

A recent White House blog post highlighted Acker’s project and several others intended, as the post put it, to “preserve the archive of the first Social Media presidency.”

For example, Feel Train, based in Portland, Ore., will republish White House tweets over the next eight years to mark some of the most significant moments of the Obama administration as experienced on Twitter. ArchiveSocial, a social media archiving platform, is hosting an open archive consolidating more than a quarter-million White House social media posts searchable by date, platform and keyword. And Rhizome, a digital art organization, is publishing a series of multimedia digital essays explaining Internet culture associated with the Obama administration.