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These ‘horns ain’t loyal, McRaven finds

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Part 69 of 72 in the series Trouble in Texas
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SLEEPING IN IT: Chancellor Bill McRaven has made his bed.

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.

RELATED: UT’s Hall challenges Abbott over board picks

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.

Part of 72 in the series Trouble in Texas
  1. Texas’ Rep. Pitts announces retirement after improper influence story
  2. University of Texas regents show support for Wallace Hall
  3. Case against UT regent Wallace Hall is a sham — here’s proof
  4. Texas senator got $477k for supposed ‘cameo’ appearance in Wallace Hall lawsuit
  5. Lawmaker admits pulling strings on UT admissions
  6. Trustee accused of crime for rejecting dodgy accounting
  7. Longhorns: Senator used clout in UT law school admissions
  8. Children of Texas lawmakers get into UT School of Law, but struggle to pass bar exam
  9. Chancellor is probing favoritism in UT admissions
  10. UT report: Charge against Hall is legally ‘absurd’
  11. Attorney in UT case hides six-figure charges despite terms of contract
  12. University of Texas clout scandal grows as new e-mails surface
  13. Four more get into UT Law despite low LSATs
  14. Reports on UT favoritism, impeachment expected soon
  15. Attorney: Secret tape covered up by lawmakers proves regent’s innocence
  16. Dozens of UT Law’s least qualified students are connected politically
  17. University of Texas uncovers admissions corruption, halts investigation
  18. UT admissions: Straus, Branch, Pitts pulled strings
  19. Who got the 128? UT Law admits students with bad LSAT scores
  20. Patrick’s win may doom Hall impeachment effort
  21. Chancellor promises complete investigation of UT admissions
  22. Board to decide UT president’s fate Thursday
  23. Texas politicians smarten up, ditch UT pres this time around
  24. Tribune story may have doomed UT’s Powers
  25. Academics condone the privilege they denounce
  26. Three essential stories on the UT admissions scandal
  27. Texas AG Greg Abbott embraces Roe v. Wade
  28. Roe v. Wade is AG’s new pretext for blocking Texas law school investigation
  29. Two UT regents pressed for records destruction
  30. New crime invented for Hall: assisted guesswork
  31. Texas lawmaker failed to disclose his own clout letter in UT flap
  32. Texas legislator Fischer insists on role in UT investigation
  33. Hutchison pulled strings for friends’ kids and grandkids at UT
  34. Ex-UT Law dean’s credit card bill: $400k in four years
  35. Abbott’s UT picks are pro-affirmative action
  36. Report: University of Texas showed favoritism to thousands
  37. Kroll ignored hundreds of weak UT applications
  38. Billionaire defends UT admissions privileges for ‘leaders’
  39. Weak admissions to University of Texas Law increased after Sager’s ouster
  40. Kroll report takes dig at Watchdog.org
  41. Hicks won’t stop UT’s backdoor admits
  42. Texas governor’s wife was on UT nominee’s payroll
  43. Bill to limit UT oversight clears committee
  44. UT regent blasts speaker for ‘abuse of office’
  45. Texas politician rebuts himself with apparently plagiarized letter
  46. Pay-to-play scandal involves UT dean, Texas Exes
  47. Supreme Court asked to look at UT’s backdoor admissions program
  48. Lawmakers want UT applications shielded from scrutiny
  49. McRaven makes UT scandal his own
  50. An open letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton on the UT cover-up
  51. Chancellor Bill McRaven’s UT cover-up has no defenders
  52. UT’s back door still open, but can’t stay secret, AG rules
  53. Whitewash: Kroll left dozens of bad LSATs out of UT report
  54. McRaven’s defense to Hall lawsuit refuted by own words
  55. Ready for the end of affirmative action?
  56. UT admissions scandal is 10 times bigger than official report
  57. McRaven trolls Dallas Morning News
  58. Powers to get top salary at UT Law
  59. UT sues to block Watchdog access to admissions investigation
  60. UT approves ‘Spinal Tap’ policy for backdoor admissions
  61. Admissions survey: No, UT, everybody doesn’t do it
  62. UT admissions scandal prompts new investigation
  63. Ticket scandal a black mark for UT, DA
  64. Showdown over UT cover-up nears end
  65. McRaven’s rationale for UT cover-up denounced by regents, AG
  66. High court to decide if University of Texas can deep-six investigation
  67. High court hears arguments on whether UT can bury investigation
  68. Testimony by UT contradicts story fed high court
  69. These ‘horns ain’t loyal, McRaven finds
  70. UT’s Hall challenges Abbott over board picks
  71. Texas Supreme Court nullifies rule of law; impunity to reign
  72. The battle for the Kroll records goes on

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Jon Cassidy was a former Houston-based reporter for Watchdog.org.