March 18, 2013
Ralph Haurwitz | Austin American-Statesman
In the latest sign of tension between the University of Texas and its governing board, President Bill Powers and other campus officials have been told to refrain from deleting emails on computers and other electronic devices.
The directive came at the request of Regent Brenda Pejovich, chairwoman of the UT System Board of Regents’ audit committee, which is investigating the relationship between the UT School of Law and the UT Law School Foundation.
But the directive goes well beyond that matter, telling Powers to make sure “no emails of any type” are deleted by his office as well as by the legal affairs, provost and business offices, or from computers used by a former dean, an assistant dean and a staff member at the Law School. What’s more, the directive said those offices and officials should disable any automatic-deletion programs for email.
“This directive is unusual,” said Gary Susswein, a spokesman for the Austin campus. “We are complying with it as we are complying with all directives and requests from the UT System.”
The directive is likely to be among the matters to be discussed during the current state legislative session by a House-Senate oversight panel that is scheduled to hold its first hearing Tuesday. The posting for the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency says it “will meet to consider organizational issues, the adoption of rules and to discuss issues related to higher education.”
The panel, which was established two years ago, was reauthorized last month by House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, both of whom have made it clear that they think the UT regents have engaged in unwarranted micromanaging of the Austin flagship.
The directive regarding emails is “extraordinarily disappointing,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a member of the joint committee and vice chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. “Its breadth under the guise of a specific review begs the question for the motivation of the request. What’s the purpose? Why the global reach?”
Melinda Perrin, a UT donor and a leader of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, expressed similar concern: “Without having insight into the board’s thought process, we remain concerned about the appearance of continued overreach and micromanagement.”
The directive is intended “to assure that all needed records would be readily available,” and it was routed through regents Chairman Gene Powell and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa in accordance with UT System procedures, said Karen Adler, a spokeswoman for the system.
The directive was conveyed to Powers in a March 8 email by Pedro Reyes, the UT System’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. Reyes did not identify the regent seeking retention of emails, but Adler told the American-Statesman it was Pejovich, who leads the Audit, Compliance and Management Review Committee.
The Board of Regents is scheduled to receive recommendations from that panel Wednesday and take “appropriate action regarding possible additional review” concerning the relationship between the School of Law and the Law School Foundation, as well as the university’s management and use of funds to support the school, according to the regents’ agenda.
Such action could include commissioning of an outside review.
A report released in November said forgivable personal loans should no longer be granted by the foundation to law professors. The report, by Barry Burgdorf, the UT System’s vice chancellor and general counsel, was prompted by the disclosure that Larry Sager, while dean of the Law School, sought and obtained a $500,000 forgivable loan from the foundation that campus officials did not sign off on and apparently did not know about.
Burgdorf’s report noted that the granting of forgivable loans to faculty members began when Powers was Law School dean but grew dramatically under his successor, Sager. Some regents apparently felt the report went easy on Powers. Burgdorf recently announced that he was resigning, effective April 30.
The directive to preserve emails specifically mentioned computers used by Sager, assistant law dean Kimberly Biar and Glenn Woelfel, a senior financial analyst at the Law School.
Powers and his bosses have clashed on various matters in the past couple of years, including the regents’ decision to partner with a private company to monitor students’ academic progress and the question of whether fundraising should be led by a vice president or someone with a different title.