By Jim Vertuno
and Michael Brick
AUSTIN — House and Senate leaders on Wednesday agreed to create a special committee to investigate the University of Texas System board of regents, as a key senator filed a bill seeking to limit the power of board members.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus agreed to form the joint panel following an emotional speech Dewhurst gave on the Senate floor Monday defending embattled University of Texas President Bill Powers.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said he wants to investigate whether the regents are “micromanaging” their nine campuses.
The joint committee will have subpoena power. Seliger has said it will call for testimony from regents and will likely demand copies of anonymous letters attacking Powers and his wife that have circulated among the regents. The first meetings could come in the next few weeks.
Who authored the letters is unclear. But Dewhurst and Seliger said Powers’ marriage has now come under attack from some regents.
Powers met his wife while she was attending the university’s law school and he was a professor. They married after she graduated in 1981 and have three children.
In a statement, Straus said the committee “will work to ensure that Texas colleges and universities provide an outstanding education for their students, are accountable to taxpayers, and operate within a governing structure that allows them to thrive.”
The terms of three regents expire this month, but the members will serve until their replacements are chosen by Gov. Rick Perry, who has been pushing universities to lower costs for students and improve four-year graduation rates.
The Senate already has confirmation power over the appointments, but the Legislature only meets for 140 days every other year. Regents who are appointed in the interim are allowed to serve until they are confirmed by the Senate.
Also Wednesday, Seliger filed a bill that would prevent regents from voting on budget or personnel matters until they have been confirmed by the Senate.
Dewhurst said he had discussed the investigation over breakfast with Perry and Straus. He said the inquiry will focus on the behavior of two or three regents. Without naming them, he said the regents in question are not near the end of their terms.
Asked about the governor’s role in the controversy surrounding Powers, he said, “I believe Governor Perry’s heart is in the right place.”
Powers has been president of the 50,000-student flagship campus in Austin since 2006 and has been fighting off political criticism of his leadership for more than two years. He is believed to have a slim majority of support among the Perry-appointed regents.
Powers has clashed with some regents over tuition, the roles of research and teaching at universities, the productivity of professors and a foundation that supplements law school salaries.
The university also has recently been embroiled in a fight with former women’s track coach Bev Kearney, who resigned while in the process of being fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a student-athlete a decade ago. The university disclosed that a current assistant football coach was reprimanded but not fired in 2009 for inappropriate contact with a student trainer on a trip to a bowl game.
Kearney has questioned whether her firing was an act of discrimination because she is African-American and a lesbian and her attorney has threatened a lawsuit.