If Bill McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System, had any doubts about the brood of vipers he’s been protecting these last two years, they were surely dispelled this morning at a hearing of the Nominations Committee of the state Senate concerning three appointments to the UT Board of Regents.
McRaven did his part for the Austin establishment, burying the bodies that needed burying. So you might think he would get to play at leadership now, and offer some bold vision for the future that would consummate in universal admiration.
Instead, he learned the hard way that these ‘horns ain’t loyal.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s three nominees rejected, in no uncertain terms, McRaven’s plan to establish a UT campus in Houston, which was announced in November 2015.
The side benefit for Abbott is that he ensures the newspapers will focus on a boring campus expansion plan rather than his other intention in getting this meeting scheduled, which is to get Wallace Hall off the board as soon as possible.
In 2015, Abbott’s nominees to the UT board weren’t confirmed until late March. But committee chairman Brian Birdwell has signed onto a rush job, scheduling a committee vote for Feb. 2.
Once the Senate confirms the nominations, Hall and two colleagues will be immediately replaced on the board.
That would block the Supreme Court from deciding whether McRaven has to share investigatory records with Hall. Even if the court rules before that, Hall would have no time to get through the records, absent some sort of restraining order.
Once that happens, McRaven will have served his purpose. He was a square jaw and a Navy uniform at a time when UT needed to sell a cover-up as somehow legitimate. He probably knew it, too, but he got around 1.9 million reasons a year to believe that he had been hired for his leadership skills.
So, under the impression that he was supposed to set a course for the UT System, he made the decision in 2015 to buy 300 acres in southwest Houston for a campus.
Only he didn’t talk to the Legislature, which had already gone home for the year. Anybody who might have supported the plan had been deprived of a chance to take credit.
Houston lawmakers came out against the expansion, seeing it as an intrusion onto the turf of the University of Houston, which has been trying desperately these last few years to establish itself as a place you would actually want to go. (Houston is also the home of Rice University, but Rice’s student body is so far superior to UT’s that it has nothing to fear.)
Many from Burnt Orange Nation opposed the plan, as it might distract from Austin and its rightful place at the center of the universe.
Abbott takes money from Houston and Austin backers. U of H board chair Tilman Fertitta has written him at least $231,000 in checks, but there’s even more money to be raised from the UT crowd. Board members Jeff Hildebrand ($401,000) and Paul Foster ($214,000) support him, as do UT mega-donor Red McCombs ($139,000) and Kenny Jastrow ($80,000), the longtime sponsor of UT ex-president Bill Powers.
That’s just scratching the surface. For years now, Abbott has aligned himself with a UT donor/alumni crowd that sees change as a threat. Some learn to embrace the status quo faster than others.
Powers took office passing out copies of Moneyball, which is all about data analytics and revolutionary change, but he quickly realized all the advantage he could gain by denouncing Hall and his talk of data analytics and change.
So a reckoning for McRaven was expected, but not outright mockery.
Nominee Janiece Longoria said the Houston expansion would be fine, as long as everybody from the Houston delegation changed their minds, and UT didn’t use any of its $25 billion endowment or issue any bonds. In other words, make sure Santa Claus signs off and pay for it with quarters you find in the couch.
Nominee Kevin Eltife questioned why UT “spent $200 million on a piece of dirt” and said he wasn’t even “real sure they know what they’re going to do with it.”
Oh, and that special arrangement where legislators get to say who gets into UT? If they’d like that back, Longoria gave them a winking assurance that she’d be just fine with it, promising lawmakers who’d been involved in the scandal “to serve your constituents in the way you deem appropriate.”
There were no winks needed from the other two nominees.
Nominee Rad Weaver’s boss, the San Antonio billionaire and mega-UT donor Red McCombs, is on the record in favor of his right to influence admissions decisions.
Eltife is a former state lawmaker who admits to writing hundreds of letters to former UT President Bill Powers on behalf of his “constituents.” He openly referred Thursday to the agreement that started so much of this trouble.
In 2009, the Legislature agreed to reduce the number of students UT was required to admit under a law guaranteeing admission to the top 10 percent of every high school class. Now the standard is 7 percent for Austin and 10 percent for the rest of the UT System.
The “Top 10 percent” law is popular with lawmakers, particularly minority and rural lawmakers, as it guarantees the “spoils” of UT admissions are spread evenly, rather than allotted to high achievers and families with donor potential, as UT would prefer.
But after Joe Straus came to power as speaker in 2009, Powers recognized an opportunity: the new speaker and his education committee chairman, Dan Branch, represented the wealthiest districts in San Antonio and Dallas, respectively. Straus, Branch and Powers, who had taken on an aggressive fundraising campaign, all stood to benefit by looking out for wealthy parents from those districts.
“I was with you when we negotiated whatever it is, 7 percent,” Eltife told Sen. Royce West (D–Dallas) at the hearing Thursday.
After Branch’s bill passed in 2009, Powers installed a formal and secret system for managing his backdoor admissions operation. The exact commitments Powers made to individual lawmakers – who got dibs on how many seats and such – could likely be found or deduced from the records of the Kroll investigation, which tracked every applicant that passed through Powers’ system.
The only member of the committee to refer to the cover-up was Van Taylor, the Republican from Collin County, who asked a generic question about whether regents should be allowed to see documents.
Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican close to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, did not attend the hearing, even though custom called for her to introduce Longoria, her constituent.
Years ago, Patrick called for an investigation into UT’s admissions. But unless a Supreme Court decision in the next few days makes it clear that the guilty will end up getting exposed, it’s doubtful there’s anyone in the Senate who sees anything to gain in doing the right thing.
McRaven, on the other hand, is learning that he didn’t put anything behind him. These snakes are his problem now.
Contact Jon Cassidy at @jpcassidy000 or [email protected]
Correction: This article originally misattributed a question asked by Sen. Dawn Buckingham.
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