Complete coverage of the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature.

House Votes to Weaken University Regents

By JIM VERTUNO
|  Tuesday, May 14, 2013  |  Updated 9:21 AM CDT
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House Votes to Weaken University Regents

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Texas lawmakers moved to assert more control over state higher education on Monday when the House voted to require that most university regents be appointed while lawmakers are in session, and limit their powers to fire campus presidents.

University system regents are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Lawmakers have become upset with University of Texas regents appointed by Gov. Rick Perry after some board members tried to oust Austin campus President Bill Powers and now want to rein in the regents' powers.

Powers, who has held the job since 2006, has clashed with regents on various issues, including tuition costs and the roles of teaching and research at the university, for more than two years. 

Under the bill given preliminary House approval Monday, regents' terms would be staggered so that all regular appointments would be made during legislative sessions in odd-numbered years. That would allow the Senate to immediately hold confirmation hearings and limit the governor's ability to stack a board with off-year appointments.

Off-year appointments could still be made if a regent leaves their post.

The bill also would bar regents from firing campus presidents without a recommendation from the system chancellor. And regents would be required to undergo training for ethics and federal student privacy laws.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chairmen of the Senate and House higher education committees. It still needs final House approval before it goes back to the Senate, which previously passed a similar version.

Perry has not publicly indicated if he will support the bill or veto it. Branch said he worked with Perry's office to find a compromise bill the governor could accept.

The dispute between the Legislature and University of Texas regents heated up this session as several prominent lawmakers accused regents of engaging in a "witch hunt" and "character assassination" against Powers, who is believed to have had only a slim majority of support on the board.

But even that support may be waning. Perry has appointed two new regents who could tip the balance against Powers, but their nominations have not yet been confirmed by the Senate with just two weeks left in the session. Their confirmation hearings are expected next week.

The bill would govern regents at every public university system in Texas.

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