UT Regents to Decide About Withholding Records

University of Texas System regents on Monday scheduled a special meeting this week to discuss and possibly vote on whether to withhold email and other records from state lawmakers.

The regents are engaged in an increasingly bitter public dispute with the Legislature over the board's role in governing the day-to-day affairs of the flagship campus at Austin and perceived attempts by some regents to oust UT-Austin President Bill Powers.

Lawmakers have accused regents of pursing a "witch hunt" against Powers and have threatened to roll back the regents' authority over their budgets and university presidents and their campuses.

The latest tussle that prompted Thursday's meeting is a dispute over confidential records sought by state lawmakers. The Legislature enjoys special legal privilege to review confidential university records and several lawmakers have submitted demands for access.

Regents chairman Gene Powell has asked state Attorney General Greg Abbott for permission to withhold records over concerns that releasing them could damage attorney-client privilege, disrupt investigations and other board matters.

Among the key issues pitting the regents against lawmakers is a recent board vote to order a new investigation of a now-defunct law school loan program that was started when Powers was dean. That program came under scrutiny when Powers' successor received a $500,000 forgivable loan. A previous investigation by the system recommended abolishing the program but cleared Powers of wrongdoing.

Lawmakers have criticized the new inquiry and are threatening to bar the regents from spending university system money to pay for it. Thursday's agenda includes a discussion on the regents' options on how to proceed with that investigation.

Most of Thursday's meeting will be held in private. The agenda includes discussions of regents' constitutional rights, Texas open records laws and the recent moves by lawmakers to limit their authority. The regents would convene in public to cast any votes.

Powers, who has been the UT-Austin president since 2006, has clashed with the board on various issues, including tuition costs and the roles of teaching and research at the university, for more than two years.

He was believed to have only a slim majority of support among the nine regents -- all appointees of Gov. Rick Perry -- but has had the backing of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus and other key lawmakers.

Perry has appointed two new regents who could tip the balance against Powers, but their nominations have not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Jeff Hildebrand is a Houston oilman and major Perry campaign donor. Ernest Aliseda is a McAllen attorney and former state district judge.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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