UT Austin gets buried in public records requests in struggle over leadership

Jan 28, 2014

A regent at the University of Texas made a request for hundreds of thousands of internal school-related documents. As a result, UT Austin has been buried in records requests and they are struggling to comply. Some are saying that the records requests are nothing more than part of a ploy to remove the school’s president. The huge amount of requests on UT has only just begun, however.

Wallace Hall has made requests totaling almost one million records and officials at the university have said they feel overwhelmed and have trouble complying. All of the documents have to be reviewed so that personal details can be redacted. Hall’s request raised the attention of lobbyists, reporters, and lawmakers who wanted to know what he had found, and the university ended up having to produce about one million documents.

To take on the huge load of record requests, UT hired its own experts to look through all the data. However, school officials still feel overwhelmed by the huge number of requests made under the open records law in the state.

A custodian of records at the school said that he spent almost five hours one day doing detailed searches for a single request. He went on to say that the larger load was just part of the problem. He was quoted as saying that the requests had become in several cases a lot more complex and comprehensive.

The requests are just part of a bigger fight over the direction of UT and whether or not teaching should be emphasized at the expense of research or vice versa. It is a tense battle and many experts are saying that the public records requests are just stoking the flames of that discussion. A lot of experts saw Wallace Hall’s actions as sort of an attempt to force the resignation or removal of Bill Powers, the president of UT Austin. The power struggle has reached all the way into the school’s football program and officials from the university are worried that it has hurt the reputation of the school and its recruiting efforts across the nation. However, so far, regents have not taken any negative action against the president.

Lawmakers came to the defense of Bill Powers this year and there is a special legislative committee devoted to investigating whether or not Hall overstepped his responsibilities as regent and released too much student information, among other activities. The committee has concluded after listening to public testimony that it could recommend the impeachment of Hall. There are no more hearings that are scheduled and the process could drag on for many months.

The huge number of requests shows the hard behind-the-scenes work that record keepers have to do to keep up with law’s rigorous outline.

A broad request like requesting correspondence between any official at UT and any state lawmaker for the past couple of years can take up the time of several state employees. Records keepers have to look through each page meticulously for private content. As a society we should consider the potential costs of keeping public records when we draft our laws that govern them.