Frank Capra would be appalled at what’s going on in Austin, Texas. The legendary director is best remembered for his populist-themed movies featuring idealistic individuals triumphing over corrupt leaders. Think It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), both starring Jimmy Stewart as the stalwart Everyman. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart played George Bailey, a decent citizen of Bedford Falls, New York, who devotes his life to helping his neighbors, expecting and demanding nothing in return, to the disgust of corrupt rival banker Henry Potter (played with sly malevolence by Lionel Barrymore). Potter eventually exploits Bailey’s earnest nature to put him out of business, accusing him of a crime and siccing the bank examiners on him. In the sentimental ending that is Capra’s trademark, Bailey’s friends and neighbors come to his rescue, saving him from ignominy and disgrace.
Since the holiday season is upon us, it’s useful to reflect on the lessons taught by Capra’s morality tale and their application to the drama now unfolding in Austin, in which University of Texas Regent Wallace L. Hall, Jr. faces an impeachment investigation by a legislative committee. Hall is a latter-day George Bailey: a civic-minded Dallas businessman who agreed, at Governor Rick Perry’s request, to serve on the nine-member UT Board of Regents, the governing body of the university’s 15-campus system. A volunteer, Hall receives no compensation for his services. When he became a Regent in February 2011, Hall was initially concerned about rapidly escalating tuition, unsatisfactory four-year graduation rates, and an academic administration resistant to improvement and reform. On further investigation, Hall grew troubled by a pattern of favoritism within UT—an off-the-books, forgivable-loan program for certain faculty at the UT law school, influential legislators obtaining preferential admission to the law school for their unqualified children, and the like.
Hall pressed for an independent outside investigation of the forgivable-loan scandal, which had already led to the resignation of Dean Larry Sager, despite questions whether his predecessor, Bill Powers, now president of UT Austin, had condoned the program. Hall also requested documents from UT relating to preferential admissions. The Texas legislators who receive special perks from the UT administration—tickets to UT football games, invitations to the president’s lavish suite, preferential admission to the university for their and donors’ children—reacted with fury. For decades, serving on the UT Board of Regents was a prized appointment for wealthy patrons of the governor. Regents were expected to cheerlead rather than govern; they were socialite potted plants attending groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings. Hall clearly intended to play more than a ceremonial role, and the legislators aimed to stop him.
One legislator, State Rep. Jim Pitts, who later admitted having written a letter to Powers to get his once-rejected son admitted to UT law school, filed an impeachment resolution against Hall. In Texas’s history, no volunteer appointee has ever been impeached, and only two elected officials have been (the last time was 40 years ago), and only then for committing crimes such as bribery or tax fraud. Yet the tainted legislative leadership referred Pitts’s resolution to a farcical committee—the House Select Committee for Transparency in State Agency Operations—which meets in secret and is threatening criminal penalties against Hall for requesting records from the institution he is legally charged, as a fiduciary, to oversee. The committee’s hearings, a mixture of witch hunt and Inquisition, began in July and will resume on December 18.
Things are not going well for Hall. With an unlimited legal budget, the committee has hired the flamboyant Houston trial lawyer Rusty Hardin to lead its “investigation” (five members of Hardin’s firm are busy building a case against Hall). Some committee members have called for Hall’s resignation before the investigation is even complete. The statewide news media—notoriously liberal and reflexively anti-Perry—have been hostile to Hall. The UT administration has powerful and influential allies, including a cheering section in the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which has hired Karen Hughes, White House adviser to former president George W. Bush (a longtime Perry nemesis) to conduct a scorched-earth PR campaign in defense of Powers.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey had a guardian angel, Clarence, who intervened when things looked hopeless. Hall has no Clarence. So far, even the governor who appointed him and encouraged his efforts has left Hall twisting in the wind while his opponents pummel him like a piñata. Will Hall’s friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens come to his defense? Or will he be railroaded off the Board of Regents, and UT reduced to a sleazy Pottersville, where corrupt legislators and their academic cronies reign?
Lax oversight by Boards of Regents helped facilitate the influence-peddling scandal at the University of Illinois and the sex-abuse outrage at Penn State. Time will tell what fate awaits UT, but one thing is clear: if the committee recommends Wallace Hall’s impeachment, higher-education reform is dead in Texas. Not a happy ending.