Longform

Wallace Hall Was Right About UT All Along

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And maybe all of that is Austin politics. But what is to be said for the Texas press and its handling of the Wallace Hall story? Every major newspaper in the state has either called for Hall's head at one point or questioned his integrity, most of them basing their complaints on an allegation that Hall asked for too much information from the university -- in other words, that he did too much reporting.

At one point UT-Austin President Powers testified to a legislative committee that Hall had demanded 800,000 pages of documents from the university at a cost to the university of $1 million. Over coffee in Dallas, Hall gives his version, which is that the 800,000-page, million dollars worth of documents story is a lie.

Hall says he was disconcerted when his first few simple requests for public documents from UT administration were answered with long stories about how difficult it would be for the university to produce such information. Hall asked his fellow regents, "Why don't we get all of our existing open records online?" They agreed it was a worthy idea, but the administration told Hall it would take a very long time to do that.

"Why can't we get this done sooner?" he asked. He says they said to him, "'Well, it's going to take a lot of people.' I said, 'Why? How many people?'

"They said, 'We don't know.' 'Well, why don't you know?' 'Because we don't know how much stuff there is.'"

At that point Hall had a new idea. By then he had figured out that the university's previous public information requests and the documents produced in response to them were somewhere in hard copy, in file boxes, not scattered across the digisphere in countless bits and bytes.

"I said, 'Let me see it. I want to physically see what we're talking about so I can do my assessment on how hard this is going to be."

When Hall finally got the administration to put all of the documents in a small room, the alleged 800,000 pages, supposedly produced at a cost of a million dollars to satisfy Hall's egregiously over-reaching public information demands, amounted to 40 file boxes.

Stacked about four boxes at a time on a two-wheel dolly, that would require 10 trips into the room if only one person were available with a dolly, five trips if two were able to show up with dollies.

The other part of the joke is this: Any experienced reporter who has worked with public information demands and large public institutions has run into just the opposite trick. You ask for one file, and when you show up to see it they have placed 40 boxes of files in the room, daring you to find the needle in the haystack. Shoveling file boxes around on dollies is what bureaucrats do all day long.

But two more aspects of this request are important. First, the documents Hall found in the boxes were public information requests and responses to those requests, but his request to see the boxes was not a public information request. It was a "regental" request, made by a regent for internal information he deemed germane to his duties as a regent. As the first impeachment investigation report made clear, a regent can ask to look at pretty much any information he wants to see.

Secondly, Hall told me the amount of information was nowhere near what Powers and his staff claimed. "It happened to cover about 100,000 pages of documents, more or less," he said. "It wasn't 800,000 pages."

That feels like the sort of thing beat reporters in the capitol covering the story from the beginning should have been able to discover early on, perhaps by asking Hall what he was doing. Instead, the establishment press parroted the charge brought against Hall by detractors that he was asking too many questions and for too much public information -- an accusation especially strange when brought by the press.

Last February The Houston Chronicle asked in an editorial, "What can micromanagement look like? Piles and piles of papers delivered in response to document requests made by an individual regent -- in this case, UT Regent Wallace Hall Jr. -- is one sure sign. When regents overstep, they distract and discourage talented leaders."

A month later under the headline "UT Regent Hall Is an Embarrassment," the San Antonio Express-News said in an editorial, "[Governor] Perry, of course, could end this circus by calling for Hall's resignation. We're waiting."

Last May The Dallas Morning News asked in an editorial, "In short, where exactly is the line between aggressive watchdog and overbearing, possibly illegal pain in the neck? And did Wallace Hall cross it? In the end, the answer is what really matters."

Being the Morning News, they didn't say what the answer was.

Had reporters for big powerhouse dailies of Texas asked Hall, they might have learned what two independent reporters did when they asked Hall what he was finding. Hall had come across internal UT emails, either naming no one or with names redacted, indicating some kind of serious monkey-business between the university and certain key legislators about admissions to the law school.


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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze