The story of the admissions scandal at the University of Texas at Austin is compelling enough.
A regent claims that students who aren’t fit for admission get in, because the allegation goes, they’re members of politically connected families.
But beyond the specifics of this case, this story has become a focal point for advocates of open government and freedom of information.
“It’s almost impossible to find out what’s taken place and for people to be held accountable if there’s been wrongdoing,” said UT Regent Wallace Hall.
He has sued UT Chancellor William McRaven to get access to records that might reveal how the admission decisions in question were made. Ultimately this case that may set a precedent on the governing of access to records at public universities in Texas.
In this scenario, Hall believes access under the Texas Public Information Act has been blocked. He says the creation of an independent inspector general’s office, were it created, would be the way to review the records.
“I don’t think we have the ability as state agency to properly investigative ourselves. I think it has proven to be a futile effort,” Hall said.
“It would be a very great benefit for the people of Texas to have a place where members of the community can actually go and take concerns to an independent group tasked by law with responding to these inquiries.”
In July of last year, William Powers, then president of the University of Texas at Austin, submitted his letter of resignation, effective this year. Within weeks, a State House Select Committee on Transparency admonished Hall for “misconduct” in what some observers believed was akin to a show trial.
Rather than trying to corroborate his concerns, Hall was attacked in the Texas Legislature.
Fast forward to this year when an independent investigation by the risk management firm Kroll found that dozens of students were getting into UT Austin despite having bad grades. Wallace asked to see records that might shed some light on the questionable admissions. He was denied.
So he launched a lawsuit to get the records.
“It’s important that we understand what allegations were not reviewed and that are obviously within our possession but we’re precluded from knowing them,” Hall said.
“And that’s not good governance.”
That case is now before the courts. Here’s an excerpt from Dallas Morning News‘ Bobby Blanchard’s report in July:
The fight for the documents has even reached the attorney general’s office. In May, Attorney General Ken Paxton advised that a university system can not withhold records necessary for a regent to do his or her job.
McRaven and the UT System have argued that the student academic information Hall is seeking is protected by federal privacy law. The UT System has also said McRaven has offered Hall the chance to view the documents with the student’s personal information redacted.
Hall says that because of his allegations, he’s now fielding questions about his personal life.
“That’s the price they want you to pay for doing your job,” he said.
He said the questions have increased lately but can be traced back to 2013. “People trolling through my life, looking for improprieties in my family,” he said.
Then the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency began investigating Hall. There was a move to impeach Hall at the Legislature after he’d asked for documents from UT Austin.
I asked him how he knew his personal life was being investigated right now.
“There are people in my social and professional group who say, ‘Hey I’m being asked about you by this person or this press is calling me,’ ” Hall said.
“And I have some suspicions that some of that material could have only come from the group that investigated me as part of the impeachment process.”
Attorney Arif Janju serves on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He said that Hall’s request for records should be seen against the backdrop of existing state legislation meant to promote transparency in government.
“This request, just like any request leveraging the Texas Public Information Act are important because they underscore a very simple principal,” Janju said.
“And that is the government’s work on behalf of the public should be conducted in the public eye. Period.”
Regent Hall is not happy to be involved in a legal dispute. But he speaks with conviction about taking a stand, regardless of the difficulty of doing so. “This case matters because if a board is rated as representatives of the people of Texas, if they are prohibited, thwarted, from being able to provide oversight and review, there is no accountability.”
Hall has never planned or threatened to reveal names of any students.
He’s fighting for an opportunity to see the admission records in question for himself, not to disclose them publicly.
He says if he gets access to the records before the case is tried, he will drop his lawsuit in a heartbeat.
This story is from the Fronteras Desk, a collaboration of NPR stations in the southwest reporting on issues – including education – in the United States and Mexico.