AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court unanimously upheld the dismissal of a University of Texas regent’s lawsuit over access to student admissions records, finding the UT chancellor had authority to redact the records based on federal privacy law.
Wallace L. Hall Jr., in his capacity as a University of Texas System regent, originally sued UT Chancellor William H. McRaven in Travis County Court in June 2015 seeking access to the disputed records.
Justice John P. Devine, who delivered the Jan. 27 opinion, stressed that the ruling only dealt with whether Hall could overcome the chancellor’s sovereign immunity to proceed in his lawsuit— and Texas’ high court ruled he could not.
As such, the ruling does not answer important questions that arose from the case, Devine said. For example, does a university regent have an inherent right for access to information? And, can an institution invoke federal privacy law to redact information and limit a regent’s quest for complete access?
The dispute started in 2013 after Hall raised concerns about possible improprieties in the admissions process at UT Austin. Then-UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa commissioned an internal inquiry into the university’s admissions practices.
The investigations yielded revelations that the university's admissions office was pressured by legislators and other influential people to admit prospective students who were less qualified than those whose applications were denied.
Cigarroa then hired the consulting firm Kroll Associates, Inc. to conduct an external investigation on admissions decisions at the university.
While Kroll was doing the investigation, McRaven took over as chancellor of the UT System in January 2015.
Kroll later released a 101-page report regarding UT admissions decisions. The report confirmed the previous revelations: “The ‘Kroll Report’ outlined a practice of UT Austin’s President—based on recommendations from influential persons—to exercise significant oversight and discretion in the admissions process. Such oversight sometimes resulted in the admission of underqualified students over the objection of admissions officials. While Kroll determined this practice might not be a violation of any existing rules or laws, it did ‘not appear in UT-Austin’s public representations,’” last week’s opinion states.
Bill Powers was UT president during the period relevant to the Kroll investigation. He resigned in 2015.
Despite the findings, McRaven concluded no disciplinary action would be taken against any university officials regarding the suspect admissions practices.
The findings of the Kroll report were made available to the public, but access to the underlying records—hundreds of thousands of pages of documents containing student records—was not provided.
In March 2015, Hall requested access to the Kroll report source materials, but McRaven denied his request.
The board of regents took a vote on Hall’s records request the next month. Three regents favored granting the request, but two regents conditioned their votes on a review by McRaven’s office to determine which information was protected by FERPA, short for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
At the time of the vote, there was no regent’s rule governing how the chancellor’s office would conduct a FERPA review, so the board adopted a rule that specifically outlined the chancellor’s role in such a review.