Texas tries to topple higher-ed transparency

Thomas K. Lindsay Director, Center for Higher Education, TPPF
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England, quipped Disraeli, is governed not by logic but by Parliament. The nineteenth-century prime minister’s maxim is supersized in Texas, where everything is bigger. The Texas House of Representatives is considering impeaching University of Texas regent Wallace Hall for asking too many tough questions of his school.

If successful, impeachment would smother in its crib the growing movement for higher-education transparency. Given Texas’s prominence, the death rattle would reverberate nationally. Texas’ higher-education wars matter far beyond the Lone Star State. Skyrocketing tuition, crushing student-loan debt, poor student learning, and rampant grade inflation afflict students, parents, and taxpayers across America — and things aren’t getting better.

Addressing this crisis requires transformational change, for which university boards have both the duty and constitutional right. “Change in institutional strategy can only come from trustees,” says Benno Schmidt, Former Yale president and current chairman of the CUNY board. Resulting demands for change by boards nationwide have produced various conflicts with administration, faculty, and alumni.

What makes Texas different is its effort to “criminalize” policy differences to protect the higher-education establishment from the accountability enhanced transparency yields.

Legislators’ accusations against Hall these past few months have proven weak. The most often heard reason for impeachment is the “burdensome” volume of his open-records requests made in fulfillment of his mandated oversight duties. Whether his requests are excessive depends on the requested records’ import. But, instead of investigating this — the saga’s central question —UT’s administration declared Hall’s remaining open-records requests “canceled, effective immediately” (though such requests are every Texas citizen’s right), thereby denying public access to the information needed to judge whether Hall was truly excessive — and this by the very parties alleging impeachable excess. This public-information embargo is occurring under the oversight of the “House “Committee on Transparency.” Why?

Hall’s defenders hold that the legislature’s motives emerge though tracing the timeline of events. Rep. Jim Pitts’s role in the impeachment drive produced an exchange with Kevin Williamson, a UT alum and National Review columnist, who asked Pitts whether he was the representative alleged by Hall’s attorneys to have illegitimately influenced administrators to get his previously rejected son into UT’s Law School. This charge emerged from the records Hall had previously requested and received.

Pronouncing Wiliamson’s question “disgraceful,” Pitts nevertheless announced he was retiring within 24 hours of Williamson’s query. Pitts then confessed to writing a recommendation for his son, denying this was unethical. Hall’s attorneys responded that “that they were discussing actions beyond mere letter writing,” accusing Pitts of “direct intercession with senior University officials,” leveraging his clout as chairman of House Appropriations, on which Texas universities depend for funding.

Given what Hall’s fulfilled records requests already allege regarding political influence-peddling, his defenders worry the “Transparency Committee” is trampling transparency to hide a Texas copycat of the University of Illinois’ “Clout Scandal,” in which the state’s flagship public university was found to have admitted unqualified students with connections to the powerful. The revelations led to a number of high-level resignations.They also worry that, whether Hall is cleared or not, the effect of what would be the first impeachment of a regent in state history will lead future regents to self-censor.

Reformers also fear that Hall’s trouncing will likewise sink the transparency movement with which he is identified. Because genuine accountability requires transparency in government operations, the prospects for institutional change to address the higher-education crisis will be correspondingly diminished. Unreformable from within, universities, reformers argue, will be improved only to the extent that they respond to a citizenry alerted and energized by the revelations transparency produces. But such bottom-up reform will wither absent the sunlight of transparency, without which students, parents, and taxpayers must continue to squint in the darkness generated by the higher-education establishment.

Much has been made of the “Texas Model” (lower taxes, common-sense regulation, and limited government) as a guide for national reform. Because of its prominence in the national debate, if the Texas succeeds in impeaching Hall, the chilling effect on reform will not be limited to the Lone Star State. Like government protectionism always and everywhere, attempts to insulate universities from the real crisis they face will serve only to hamstring their capacity to enact the reforms without which they may not survive.  Disraeli notwithstanding, the logic of events will ultimately prevail. When it does, Texas, far from offering a national model for emulation, will serve as a cautionary tale instead.

Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn.

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Thomas K. Lindsay