Mar 2, 2022 - News

How the University of Texas defers to business interests

The University of Texas tower

The University of Texas Tower. Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Axios Austin is currently embroiled in three open records disputes with the University of Texas.

Why it matters: University officials acknowledge they are deferring to business interests — instead of simply releasing information to the public.

Details: UT officials are refusing to say how much money the public university has agreed to pay one outside firm to assist in its ongoing law school dean search or how much it's contracted to pay another to consult on name-image-likeness issues involving student-athletes.

  • The law school dean consulting contract is paid for by tuition and fees and the name-image-likeness contract comes from revenue generated by the athletics department, according to university officials.

What they're saying: "We always consider the fact that as state employees we are serving the public, and as such the public has an interest in all information pertaining to our business," UT open records coordinator Robert Davis told Axios.

Yes, but: "That said, there's no fixed formula or 'calculation' for how these interests are balanced," he added.

  • In these cases, Davis has said the university has no feeling one way or the other about the release of the information, but it has decided to defer to private contractors that want to keep the information confidential — rather than defer to the public's right to know.
  • UT officials "risk courting disfavor with potential future contractors" if they release the contract information, Davis said.
  • Of note: The university releases information about actual payments made to vendors.

The other side: "UT is the worst state agency I deal with on open records matters," said Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney who is a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

  • Plus: What contractor would turn down a chance to win a University of Texas contract?

Flashback: UT president Jay Hartzell has played cat-and-mouse on open records matters, warning in one email uncovered by the Texas Tribune that he didn't want to put too much in writing for fear it would turn up in a records request.

Separately: The university is also refusing to give Axios copies of its donor agreements related to some of its on-campus think tanks — even with the names of donors redacted.

  • On Monday, the university asked the state attorney general to wade into the dispute, arguing that revealing terms with donors would put the university at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to fundraising.

Our thought bubble: Last we checked, the state's flagship university doesn't have much difficulty raising money for projects large and small — and often practically spells out the donation terms.

  • When Dallas businessman Robert Rowling's family pledged $25 million to the university's business school, for example, it named a graduate hall after him — and UT trumpeted the gift in news releases.

What's next: The state attorney general will determine whether the university must release the information.


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