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.

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.

Texas State president condemns ‘vile acts,’ touts diversity and open debate

Denise Trauth has been president of Texas State University since 2002. But never before has she sent an open letter to the university community quite like the one that emerged from her reflections during the Thanksgiving break.

“I personally used much of the time to review and mull over the emails, resolutions and letters I have received during the last three weeks pertaining to the presidential election and the events that have transpired in its wake, both on and off our campuses,” Trauth wrote. “These communications include resolutions and letters from academic departments, an open letter to the editor in the University Star, a communication from the Coalition of Black Faculty and Staff, and hundreds of emails from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the university.”

The Texas State campus, like much of the nation, has been roiled by the presidential campaign and its aftermath, as my colleague Anna Herod writes in today’s editions. For example, fliers on campus touted “our man Trump” and threatened school leaders with attacks for spouting “diversity garbage.”

More than 750 students, faculty members, staffers and alumni have signed an online petition asking administrators to declare the university a “sanctuary” for students and staff members who are in the country illegally. The petition complained of fliers calling for “tar & feather vigilante squads” to “arrest and torture . . . university leaders.”

Trauth is troubled by some of the developments.”We will not tolerate vile acts of aggression such as the vigilante posters that appeared the day after the election,” she wrote. “In my role as the leader of Texas State University, I remain staunchly committed to our core values that include diversity, equality, and inclusion.  I have spoken plainly and forcefully on behalf of these values because they are fundamental to who we are.”

By the same token, she said, “many members of our campus community are pleased with the outcome of the election,” adding that a university president has a “duty not to speak out on controversial or societal issues that are beyond higher education, absent extraordinary circumstances.”

“This corollary duty not to speak allows me to be an impartial guardian of the sacred academic environment that we have on our campuses now that allows us — every member of our community — to engage in vibrant, unfettered discourse, discussion, debate, examination, and testing of ideas, thoughts, positions, theories, and concepts known and unknown,” she wrote.

Trauth outlined various initiatives intended to reassure those on campus who feel threatened and to spur intellectual debate, including stepped-up police patrols, public forums for “civil discourse” on controversial issues and a dialogue series on politics, freedom of expression and other topics.

She said university police had not received any reports in the three weeks since the election of  “an assault or a direct threat of an assault upon a Texas State student, faculty, or staff member.” Any threat or assault should be immediately reported to university police, she said.

As for the growing national movement to support immigrant students and the petition urging “sanctuary” status for the university, she wrote: “I am reviewing these initiatives and determining what the University’s role should be.”

UT’s Fenves: Heart surgeon Denton Cooley’s legacy lives on

Denton Cooley, the world-famous heart surgeon, died Friday at the age of 96. Gregory L. Fenves, president of the University of Texas, where Cooley majored in zoology and graduated in 1941 with honors, released the following statement:

“Denton Cooley created new standards of care and drove changes in medicine that improved and saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients around the world. The University of Texas prepares leaders who can benefit society and improve the world — none more so than Dr. Cooley, who continued to give back throughout his life. His legacy on campus and throughout the world will be felt for generations.”

As the Houston Chronicle reported in this obituary, Cooley attended UT on a basketball scholarship. He lettered for three years and was a member of the team when it won the Southwest Conference in 1939.

UT’s basketball teams practice in the Denton A. Cooley Pavilion just south of the Erwin Center, where home games are played.

The Chronicle story recounts that Rick Barnes, when he was UT’s men’s basketball coach, once invited Cooley to address the team. The surgeon’s sense of humor and his lifetime achievements stood out for Barnes.

“There have been basketball players that have come through UT that have done more for the sport,” Barnes said. “But when you look at his contributions to society, it’s really quite astonishing.”

After graduating from UT, Cooley enrolled at the UT Medical Branch at Galveston and later transferred to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned his medical degree.

UT System could face uphill battle on campus carry, tuition, other legislative priorities

Barry McBee, the vice chancellor and chief governmental relations officer for the University of Texas System, was his usual crisp and efficient self when he rattled off the system’s priorities for the state legislative session that begins in January.

Some of the priorities he outlined at a meeting Thursday of the UT System Board of Regents could face considerable debate in the Legislature. Examples:

Campus carry. The system, which oversees 14 campuses, wants to retain a provision in the state’s concealed-handgun law that allows campus presidents to establish gun-exclusion zones. Some lawmakers say presidents have declared too many areas off-limits.

Tuition. The UT System wants to retain the authority, granted to boards of regents by lawmakers in 2003, to set tuition rates. The system also wants to preserve state-mandated tuition set-asides — the use of tuition revenue to provide student financial aid.

Unauthorized immigrants. The system wants to retain 2001 legislation that allows certain unauthorized immigrants residing in Texas to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities rather than the higher prices charged to out-of-state residents.

Veterans. The system wants lawmakers to either fund or scale back a tuition benefit for certain military veterans’ family members. The benefit costs the system nearly $50 million a year in tuition revenue.


For student who won seat on ACC’s board, a singular opportunity

Nicole Eversmann, a student at Austin Community College, broke a glass ceiling of sorts on Tuesday by narrowly winning a seat on the college’s Board of Trustees. College officials say students have run for the board in the past, but they were unaware of another student who had prevailed.


“I am honored and humbled by all the support I received throughout my candidacy,” Eversmann, 21, told me in an email. “I am excited to bring the student voice to the table as a member of ACC’s Board of Trustees. ”

She received 134,684 votes, or 51 percent, in a three-way race for Place 5, based on final but unofficial results. Thomas Miranda, an engineer who operates an Austin-based technology and management consulting firm, got 79,019 votes, or 30 percent of the tally, while Anthony Schoggins, a legislative aide to a state senator, received 51,260 votes, or 19 percent.

The current occupant of Place 5, Victor H.P. Villarreal, decided not to run for re-election.

A student since 2013, Eversmann has taken classes at seven ACC campuses. She served on the college’s Futures Institute, a panel that helped shape a “guided pathways” initiative intended to provide stepped-up academic advising and other support to keep students on track to completing their studies.

Eversmann said during the run-up to the election that service on ACC’s board would allow her to counter a stereotype in some quarters that portrays community colleges as second-rate. She regards the quality of education at ACC as quite high. She will graduate in May with an associate degree and is confident, based on her academic record, of gaining admission to the University of Texas, where she plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Like many of those whose who ran for ACC’s board, Eversmann hopes to address parking shortages at a number of campuses, inadequate bus service and a pressing need for child care.  She sees no need to raise tuition or taxes.

UT chancellor prevails in squabble over deadline in admissions investigation lawsuit

The Texas Supreme Court has settled a squabble over timing in the case of Wallace L. Hall Jr. v. William H. McRaven. The court on Friday granted lawyers for McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System, extra time to respond to legal papers filed against the chancellor by Hall, a member of the system’s Board of Regents.

Hall wants the state’s highest civil court to review and overturn a lower court ruling in which he lost his bid to force McRaven to turn over documents, including confidential student records, from an investigation into favoritism in admissions at UT-Austin.

The Supreme Court previously said McRaven would have to respond no later than this coming Monday, Oct. 31. Lawyers for McRaven said they were swamped with other legal work and needed extra time. They got their wish; their response is now due no later than Nov. 10.

But the court added a warning, in bold-face type and all capital letters: “FURTHER REQUESTS FOR EXTENSIONS OF TIME WILL BE DISFAVORED.”


The case of Wallace L. Hall Jr. v. William H. McRaven has taken yet another twist — this time, a squabble over how quickly the latter must file legal arguments with the Texas Supreme Court.

To review: Hall, a University of Texas System regent, wants McRaven, the system’s chancellor, to turn over emails, notes and a host of other records from an investigation into favoritism in admissions at UT-Austin. McRaven contends that Hall’s demands do not meet the federal standard of “legitimate educational interest” to warrant granting him access to private student files collected in the investigation.

Hall’s request for state Supreme Court review, filed last month, contends that it would be “a dangerous precedent” to allow university officials to withhold information from regents sworn to oversee the school. The justices gave McRaven until midnight Oct. 31 to file a response.

In the latest twist, McRaven’s lawyers filed court papers Thursday asking for a new deadline of Nov. 11 “to prepare a thorough and helpful brief for the Court.” The reason for a delay: His lawyers must file briefs and participate in oral arguments in several other cases in the coming days.

Hall’s lawyers filed a counter-argument minutes later, arguing that any delay will increase McRaven’s chances of prevailing in the case “simply by running out the clock.” Hall’s six-year term as a regent expires Feb. 1, and the case presumably would become moot once he is off the board. The prospect of a ruling should not be jeopardized “just because at least one of respondent’s many lawyers is busy,” wrote Joseph Knight, Hall’s attorney.

A state district judge in Travis County threw out Hall’s lawsuit in December, essentially agreeing with the chancellor that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over this sort of dispute. In September, a three-judge panel of the state 3rd Court of Appeals sided with McRaven as well, ruling that the chancellor did not act outside his authority and that it was the Board of Regents that ultimately denied Hall access to the private student records. Hall then turned to the Texas Supreme Court.


UTIMCO chairman ‘excited’ about search for new investment chief

When the head of a multibillion-dollar organization steps down, effective immediately, it raises the question of whether the person jumped or was pushed.

Case in point: Bruce Zimmerman’s abrupt resignation Monday from the University of Texas Investment Management Co., which oversees nearly $37 billion in stocks, bonds and other assets, including endowments for the UT System and the Texas A&M University System. Zimmerman had been UTIMCO’s chief executive and chief investment officer since 2007.

UTIMCO Chairman and UT Regent Jeffery Hildebrand
UTIMCO Chairman and UT Regent Jeffery Hildebrand

I asked Jeffery Hildebrand, chairman of the nonprofit investment company and a UT regent, about the matter this morning, and he replied: “We’re going to proceed forward. We’re going to look for a new CIO and we’re excited about that. Based on Bruce’s comments, I think he’s excited where he’s at now, too.”

Asked if he was unhappy with recent performance, Hildebrand said: “I’m just going to no comment on that. I want to keep everything positive. Look, it’s a new chapter for everyone and we’re excited about it. I think Bruce is excited about where he’s going. We’re going to go out and conduct a national search and really find a world-class CIO to shepherd this thing over for the next 10 years.”

The UT System’s news release announcing Zimmerman’s departure included this passage:

“During his tenure, Zimmerman built a stellar team of investors who collectively have added over $4.25 billion of value – or approximately $475 million per year – for both the UT and A&M Systems.”

UT regents approve pay raise for women’s basketball coach Karen Aston

A healthy boost in pay for Karen Aston, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Texas, was approved Friday by the UT System Board of Regents as expected.

Aston’s annual guaranteed compensation rose $156,187, or 25 percent, to $777,500. Nonguaranteed pay, based on how well the team does, could bump her earnings up by as much as $195,000 for a total of $972,500; that’s $130,687 more than her maximum possible compensation under the previous employment agreement.

The team has steadily improved under Aston, advancing last season to the Elite Eight before losing to the University of Connecticut, the eventual national champion.

“The market for women’s basketball coaches is higher than ever before,” said Chris Plonsky, women’s athletics director. “We wanted to make a statement that we’re committed to her.”