I SWEAR: Last fall, Ferdinand Frank Fischer III said Wallace Hall’s failure to tolerate accounting fraud is grounds for impeachment.
By William Murchison | Special to Watchdog.org
The surprise announcement of Bill Powers’ slow-motion, let’s call it leave-taking, from the University of Texas presidency finally may have broken the Austin heat, like a mid-summer thunderstorm.
Hardly anyone from the university itself, or the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operation, seemed worked up Wednesday over some theoretical need to convene the Spanish Inquisition, boil foes in hot oil, or participate in similar college pranks. Pretty much everyone at the committee’s first meeting since UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Powers papered over their divisions seemed ready to get on with life.
State Rep. Trey Fischer, D-San Antonio, did play with a suspicious foot or two of metaphorical rope while grilling UT Regents Chairman Paul Foster about Powers’ Board of Regents nemesis, Wallace Hall.
Fischer accused Hall of conduct “bordering on harassment” in undertaking an independent investigation of alleged favoritism in the admission to UT Law School of well-connected if academically subpar applicants. He got nowhere with Foster, who yields to many in his admiration of Hall but strongly defended what he called the university’s present system of checks and balances in the distribution of power.
Foster, who earlier asked Hall to resign from the board, so as to damp down tensions, called his colleague “the most inquisitive board member I have ever come across,” but acknowledged a regent’s right to seek and obtain information.
“What can I do to control a regent?” he asked at one point. “I don’t have that authority … nor do I believe I should have that authority.”
Scenting in Fischer’s questions and declarations a bid for more legislative control of UT, Foster pushed back determinedly.
“The state Legislature,” he had said earlier, “is not appropriate to intervene in personnel decisions at UT.”
The very idea he found “offensive to me, frankly.” The administrative system as set up, and modified in December to deal better with freelance activities, “is a good one,” from Foster’s standpoint. He wouldn’t change it.
Nor would state Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock.
“I think both” — meaning Powers and Hall — “should take some responsibility” for damaging the board’s relationship with Powers, Perry said. “But I’m not willing to throw out the system,” with “the Legislature taking the lead in whatever goes forward.”
Cigarroa recounted for the committee the fraught state of his relationship with Powers, without getting into specifics.
“There was a breakdown in communication and a breakdown in trust…,” the chancellor said. “I did call Bill Powers in.”
The two agreed that “this is a fractured relationship …. I told Bill I considered it in the best interest of the University of Texas” to put the matter of his resignation on the table.
Powers, Cigarroa said, wanted two things — to complete UT’s capital campaign and to fulfill his tenure as chairman of the American Association of Universities, commitments of which “all of us are so proud.” A deal was done. Cigarroa, who steps down once his successor as head of the UT system is named, conveyed to committee members the impression of strong relief.
The impeachment, not to mention the tarring and feathering, of Hall may lurk for a while in the minds of Fischer and those of like mind, but on the evidence of their latest meeting, it might be hard to collect much of a lynch mob.
William Murchison is an author, syndicated columnist, and former associate editor of The Dallas Morning News.