Cronyism 101 at the University of Texas

By Mark Pulliam | Aug 6, 2018

This column first appeared Aug. 5 on Misrule of Law.

So current UT faculty member (and former administrative honcho) Bill Cunningham is organizing a PAC fundraising event featuring UT President Greg Fenves and the newly-hired Athletic Director, Chris Del Conte, to build a war chest to ensure a docile reception in the Legislature.    Cunningham is Chairman of the PAC. One of the PAC’s other board members is a current member of the UT Board of Regents, David Beck, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

I received an invitation to the fundraiser in the mail yesterday. The PAC is seeking sponsors at the $10,000 (Platinum), $5,000 (Gold), $2,500 (Silver), and $1,000 (Bronze) levels. I sent my regrets but was prompted to ask Professor Cunningham a few questions. Here they are.  I will share the response if and when I receive one.

William H. Cunningham

Professor of Marketing Administration

McCombs School of Business

University of Texas at Austin

Dear Professor Cunningham:

I received a letter bearing your signature (as Chairman of Friends of The University PAC), inviting me to attend a fundraiser in Austin on September 17, featuring as special guests UT President Greg Fenves and Athletic Director Chris Del Conte. A similar event is being held at the Houston home of UT Regent David Beck on September 26. The purpose of both events is to raise money for the PAC, to “support[] the campaigns of those…who share our desire to maintain excellence at The University.”

As the PAC’s website states, “We are the only organization specifically designed to build alliances between The University and elected officials by supporting their political activities. We pool the resources of UT Austin’s supporters around the state and contribute those funds to candidates who would advance The University’s interests in the state legislature. Friends of The University PAC funds are distributed to state leaders who make decisions about the budget and other legislation that affects The University of Texas at Austin.” (Emphasis added.)

Thank you for the invitation, but I regret that I will not be able to attend the event. I did, however, have a few questions:

First, since I have never donated money to the PAC—and I don’t believe I am on your Christmas card list–how did I get on the mailing list for this event?  Did the PAC acquire the membership list from the Texas Exes, an ostensibly independent (but de facto in-house) alumni organization of which I am a Life Member? If so, how much consideration did the PAC provide for access to the membership list? Did the PAC obtain from the University (or, as the PAC prefers, “The University”) a list of graduates from or donors to UT?  If so, how much did the PAC pay for such a list? If the list was furnished by either Texas Exes or the University free of charge, who was your contact person at the organization?

Second, since you teach at the UT law school, I presume that you are familiar with the legal restrictions governing the political activities of public employees in Texas, such as Government Code section 556.004. In light of section 556.004(c), have you sought or obtained legal guidance from the UT System regarding (1) the propriety of a current UT faculty member serving as Chairman of a PAC, (2) using a mailing list obtained from either Texas Exes or UT to send invitations to a political fundraising event, (3) having two current university administrators appear at a political fundraising event as featured guests, or (4) having a current member of the UT System Board of Regents (David Beck) serve on the Board of Directors of a PAC and act as the host for the PAC’s fundraising events?  The issue is whether the foregoing activities constitutes a state employee using his “official authority or influence” to “interfere with or affect the result of an election or nomination of a candidate or to achieve any other political purpose.” If you have received such legal advice from UT, please provide me with a copy.

Third, I note that one of the classes you teach at UT is Corporate Governance. Moreover, you have prior experience as President of UT-Austin and Chancellor of the UT System.  In that regard, do you feel that it is good governance for faculty members of an institution to align themselves with the current administration (i.e., President Greg Fenves), along with a current member of the governing board (the UT Board of Regents) to raise money for the avowed purpose of influencing the Legislature in the exercise of its oversight and budgetary authority? Doesn’t this strike you as self-dealing, or at least as putting an institutional thumb on the scale, tipping the balance of power in favor of university administrators? Shouldn’t sound governance be based on the public interest (taking into account the views of Texans as a whole), rather than the parochial interests of insiders and a handful of influential cronies?

In the corporate context, your PAC would be comparable to high-ranking employees conspiring with corporate officers and selected members of the board of directors to meddle in shareholder elections. If I’m not mistaken, that would be considered a breach of the officers’ and directors’ fiduciary duty to the shareholders.

Fourth, and finally, I wonder why you think a campaign war chest is necessary to influence elected officials (such as state Sen. Judith Zaffirini) to support the University’s political goals when UT has been so active in granting preferential admission and other perks—such as vendor arrangements, honorific posts, lucrative sinecures, awards, etc.–to well-connected donors and political leaders. As journalist Jon Cassidy reported, under former UT President Bill Powers (who was forced to resign amidst a preferential admissions scandal), hundreds of unqualified applicants were admitted to UT (and even UT law school) at the direction or request of UT cronies (whom the PAC euphemistically refers to as “allies”).

Thank you in advance for your prompt response.


Mark Pulliam

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