U-Tex Regent Seeks Chancellor’s Secrets

     AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A University of Texas regent sued the chancellor, for refusing to show him a report on alleged “influence peddling” in university admissions.
     Wallace L. Hall Jr. sued University of Texas System Chancellor William H. McRaven in Travis County Court on Monday for the report on admissions at U-Texas, Austin.
     Hall was appointed in 2011 to a six-year term on the Board of Regents. He was a member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board before then-Gov. Rick Perry appointed him as a regent.
     The previous Chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa, commissioned two investigations into allegations of “improper outside influences” on admissions decisions. The first investigation was an internal one that resulted in a May 2014 report showing that “legislators and other influential people have routinely recommended prospective students directly to the University President.”
     “(S)uch prospective students have been granted admission at rates significantly higher than the remaining applicant pool; and this disparity in admission rates cannot be explained by grades, test scores, or other legitimate factors of individual merit,” the complaint states.
     Hall says that report recommended review and revision of admissions practices, but did not indicate that disciplinary actions had been taken.
     Then came new “revelations” from a former admissions official, Hall says: that the UT president allowed “outside influences,” such as donors, alumni, regents and legislators to pressure officials to admit students less qualified than those who were denied, and even increase class size to accommodate them.
     Chancellor Cigarroa then hired independent consultant Kroll Inc. to do a second investigation.
     Kroll, which was paid $400,000, interviewed UT System officials, looked at thousands of emails and analyzed 10 years of admissions data.
     Kroll issued a “Summary of Key Findings” on Feb. 6 this year, citing undue influence on admissions decisions, Hall says.
     The summary does not contain the actual interviews, emails, analyses of student application files or source materials. Nor does it reveal who exerted undue influence, nor the precise sorts of pressure to which the university president claims he was submitted.
     Hall says the Board of Regents was not allowed to review “the work product underlying Kroll’s summary or to ask questions of the Kroll investigators.”
     When McRaven succeeded Cigarroa this year, he said no disciplinary action would be taken on the findings in the Kroll report.
     Hall requested access to the Kroll report source materials in March, because he was concerned about McRaven’s “quick, unilateral adjudication.” He wants to understand the “issues and potential risks to the University System that were identified or discussed by Kroll but, for whatever reason, did not make it into the published Kroll report.”
     Hall says Board of Regents rules give him and all regents the right to see the Kroll records, to “fulfill their duties and responsibilities.”
     The Regents’ rule on information requests states that “the vote of any two or more regents in support of the request is sufficient to direct that the request be filled without delay.”
     The Board of Regents convened a special meeting on Hall’s request for the Kroll records on April 8. Before the vote, the regents chairman suggested that McRaven’s chief concern with Hall’s request was maintaining confidentiality of records.
     Hall says he agreed to review the records in McRaven’s office, to guarantee confidentiality and to save regents the trouble of voting on the matter.
     McRaven then “promptly backtracked, refusing to provide the information even for a confidential review” because he considered Hall’s request “an affront” to his authority as chancellor, according to the lawsuit.
     McRaven said: “If you want to reopen all the information that we got from the Kroll report and take a look at all that data, I’m not inclined to go there.”
     So Hall asked the Board of Regents to vote, and it approved his request for access to all of the Kroll data, including information that may be subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also called FERPA.
     McRaven still has not provided the records, on the pretext that FERPA does not allow a regent to view see educational information. Hall calls this “nonsense:” that McRaven claims federal law allows him to give confidential student records to Kroll, but not to a regent seeking to evaluate policy decisions and administrators’ performance.
     Hall says he has previously received and reviewed confidential emails subject to FERPA, and that UT System attorneys issued a report stating he had a right to see records “that bear on concerns regarding the university’s admissions practices.”
     He calls McRaven’s claim that Hall needs “legitimate educational interests” to see the Kroll records “another disingenuous roadblock.”
     In an April 9 letter to the UT System’s general counsel, Hall cited 12 educational reasons for him to see the Kroll records, all of them relating to admissions practices.
     For instance, Hall wants to “evaluate the effect that outside influences on the admissions process may have on the University’s ongoing struggles with low graduation rates.”
     Hall says the chancellor and general counsel conceded in private, nonprivileged conversations that he has explained his legitimate educational interests in seeing the Kroll data.
     But McRaven remains “defiant and unlawful;” he sees it as a “power struggle,” Hall says. He says McRaven fails to acknowledge, or understand, the regents’ duty is to oversee the Chancellor’s Office and all other university officials.
     “A regent’s oversight responsibilities require him to ask tough questions,” Hall says in the lawsuit. “They require him to review records that university officials may prefer to keep secret. They require him to attempt to ensure that the university is not engaged in practices or exposed to ongoing risks that could subject it to liability. …
     “The chancellor has no legal authority to keep the Kroll information from Hall, even if the information may lead to revelations that tarnish the university’s national prestige or call the chancellor’s judgment into question.”
     McRaven won’t budge even though Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion confirming that the chancellor was acting illegally.
      Paxton wrote : “The Board of Regents of the University of Texas System may not prohibit an individual regent from obtaining access to records in the possession of the University that are necessary to fulfill his duties as a regent. … (T)he Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does not allow a university to withhold student records from state or local education officials that are necessary in connection with an audit and evaluation of a state supported education program.”
     McRaven said in a statement: “Where federal or state law makes confidential information that relates to a specific individual, whether it is private health information or an individual student’s protected information, it is our duty to ensure that we strictly comply with those confidentiality requirements. I regret that Regent Hall believes the lawsuit is necessary or appropriate, but I am confident that my actions are in compliance not only with what the law requires, but also with what is in the best interest of our students, patients, and employees across the UT System.”
     Hall seeks declaratory judgment and an injunction stating that neither the chancellor nor other university officials can deny him access to the Kroll records, and that the Board of Regents’ 3-6 vote on Hall’s motion requires the chancellor to provide the records.
     He is represented by Joseph Knight in Austin.

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