Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Senator grills UT chancellor, an old friend

Friday, Nov. 18, 2011

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has known Francisco Cigarroa since he was born. His mother is one of her best friends. His father is her physician.

But Cigarroa, the chancellor of the University of Texas System, didn't alert Zaffirini, who leads the Senate Higher Education Committee, when a controversy erupted early this year over the direction of the system and its governing board.

"And when UT was criticized in particular, you didn't defend UT," Zaffirini told Cigarroa at a hearing held Friday by a special House-Senate panel. "Why not?"

Cigarroa replied that he initially was "trying to put my hands around how quickly this was moving and where it was going."

Indeed, he was navigating a political minefield. The chairman of the Board of Regents had hired an adviser — who was later dismissed — with a job description overlapping some of the chancellor's duties. And some UT regents, along with counterparts at the Texas A&M University System, seemed sympathetic to Gov. Rick Perry's desire to shake up public higher education.

Cigarroa testified that he found other venues to speak his mind, including a gathering of prominent donors, newspaper editorial boards and meetings of the regents where he defended the system's faculty members and scolded board members for micromanagement.

"So in my voice," Cigarroa said, "I spoke out to the best of my abilities."

The exchange wasn't the only moment when the senator put her old friend on the spot during Friday's hearing of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, which Zaffirini leads along with Rep. Dan Branch , R-Dallas. Up to now, she has largely defended the chancellor's handling of the higher education debate, which broke out in March after Gene Powell, chairman of the UT regents, hired Rick O'Donnell as special adviser and suggested that college costs could be reduced by offering a $10,000 bachelor's degree akin to the quality of a midlevel vehicle .

Zaffirini noted that when her office requested emails and other records about several higher education proposals promoted by Perry, including bonus pay for faculty members based solely on student evaluations, the A&M System "turned in the documents we requested almost immediately. Nothing was marked confidential. Working with UT, on the other hand, whether with the system or with a particular individual, was incredibly challenging.

"I think I called you, chancellor, what, perhaps five times, saying, 'Where is the information and why aren't we getting it?' And so many of the emails were marked confidential," Zaffirini said.

"We haven't found anything that we consider confidential. Embarrassing? Yes. Controversial? Absolutely. Stupid? Sometimes. But not confidential. And even today we have not resolved which are no longer considered confidential. Why is it so difficult and why is this information still being considered confidential?" she said.

Cigarroa replied that he didn't understand why it was so difficult. "I certainly conveyed your strong concerns to the Office of General Counsel," he said. "I think a complicating factor was that we were under threat of ... a lawsuit by the previous special adviser to the board. I wasn't really an expert to determine what was confidential or not from a legal perspective."

The chancellor said he would convey her concerns again to the system's general counsel, Barry Burgdorf .

"The sooner the better," Zaffirini said, "because we have so much information that I can't ask you questions about because they're marked confidential, and that really ties our hands."

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