The Eyes of Texas are Upon You: the Franklin Center’s Amicus Brief in Hall v. McRaven

For years, well-connected applicants to the University of Texas benefitted from a secret admissions process; hundreds of applicants who would otherwise have been denied admission to the school were accepted due to the influence of powerful legislators, friends, or family members. But thanks to strong-willed whistleblowers and dedicated journalists, the scandal was uncovered in 2013, culminating in the resignation of UT-Austin President Bill Powers.

The University’s official investigation initially discovered very little wrongdoing; a subsequent report by the independent firm Kroll Associates found more widespread abuse. Watchdog.org’s Jon Cassidy also investigated this scandal, discovering that at least 764 people were admitted to the University of Texas that would not have been under the admissions standards typically applied to applicants. “The Kroll investigation confirmed what had been common knowledge… students were getting into UT at extraordinary rates, despite bad grades,” Cassidy found.

The full extent of the malfeasance, however, remains unknown; many have hypothesized that the Kroll report may have publicly downplayed the scope of the scandal. Accordingly, Wallace Hall, a member of the UT Board of Regents, has repeatedly requested – and been denied – access to the full set of documents compiled by Kroll. Hall was forced to turn to the courts, filing suit against University Chancellor William McRaven in a case that will be heard by the Texas Supreme Court today.

The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the publisher of Watchdog.org, filed an amicus brief in support of Hall, because of the implications that Hall’s case has for transparency and oversight of government boards throughout the state of Texas. We have requested some of the same information at issue in this case, and are currently in litigation with the University of Texas system in a Public Information Act case.

In our brief, we assert that “release of the information at issue in this case is vital for proper government of UT, and the stated grounds for withholding it are symptomatic of institutional drift of governmental bodies in the Texas and the U.S. to insulate themselves from the public they are intended to serve.”

A previous Court of Appeals decision in the case creates a particularly troubling precedent for oversight bodies in the state; as Hall’s attorney, Joe Knight, notes, “Under the opinion, a state official can now violate state law with impunity, so long as he gets the backing of a majority of the agency’s governing board. This dangerous holding is especially inappropriate here, because Kroll found that members of the Board of Regents were complicit in the secret admissions program to which the withheld information relates.”

Should this ruling stand, governance and oversight boards at all levels of government will be able to hide damning information and data from their fellow reform-minded colleagues by a simple majority – striking a fatal blow against transparency and accountability.

Hall’s case will have far-reaching implications for good governance in the Lone Star State. As the University’s fight song says, “The eyes of Texas are upon you.” Hopefully, the Texas Supreme Court will affirm the right of regents, trustees, commissioners and other members throughout the state to continue their proud tradition as the eyes of Texans on their governmental bodies.

Nicole Neily is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit that publishes public-interest journalism at Watchdog.org.