Two-thirds of board members overseeing Texas public universities are Abbott donors. They’re not shy about wielding influence.
In 2017, state Rep. Lyle Larson authored a bill to block any governor from appointing someone to a state board or commission who had contributed more than $2,500 a year to their campaign.
Larson, R-San Antonio, said he’d heard concerning stories from a constituent who was interested in joining the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, and later from a friend who was trying to join the Texas A&M Board of Regents.
Both people, Larson told The Texas Tribune, felt deterred after hearing that the best way to land an appointment on a prestigious state board or commission was to give the governor a donation that would get them noticed.
Larson’s bill passed the House with bipartisan support that year, but it never got a hearing in the Senate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, declined to advance the bill through the chamber, Larson said.
“He said, ‘No, that’s how people raise large sums of money when they want to run for governor,” said Larson, who is not seeking reelection this year and is backing Patrick’s Democratic opponent in November. Patrick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking a third term, is the most prolific political fundraiser in modern state history. He has named donors to all sorts of boards and regulatory commissions across Texas — but they are especially concentrated on the boards running 36 public universities. The regents set tuition rates and faculty salaries, approve new degree programs, audit university finances, manage campus growth plans and hire and fire university presidents and football coaches.
Abbott has appointed all 90 people who currently serve on nine university system boards, plus the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. During his nearly eight years as governor, he’s made 114 such appointments. A Tribune analysis found that more than 70% of all these appointees have donated to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign, including donations given in their spouse’s or company’s name (if they are the CEO). About 30% of the appointees have given more than $100,000. A Tribune analysis also found that the larger and more prestigious the university system, the more likely its board is to be stacked with deep-pocketed donors.
This analysis does not include student regents who are appointed annually — instead of the typical six-year term — and do not have voting rights.
Some of the most generous Abbott donors tapped to oversee Texas’ public universities include:
- University of Houston System regent Tilman Fertitta, owner of Landry’s restaurants, Golden Nugget casinos and the Houston Rockets who has given more than $1.8 million;
- University of Texas System regent Kelcy Warren, a billionaire who owns Energy Transfer Partners and has given $2.9 million;
- Texas A&M University System regent Robert Albritton, who started Railroad Controls Limited, the largest privately owned railroad signaling and communications company in the country, among other businesses, and donated $1.8 million;
- Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board member S. Javaid Anwar, a Permian Basin oil tycoon who is also Abbott’s top overall donor, having contributed more than $6.2 million in total.
To be sure, it’s common for political donors to want to be on university boards. Board members often bring a strong personal connection to the universities; many are alumni. They tap their own networks to fund academic and athletic programs. It’s also not uncommon for a governor to award appointments to donors, as Rick Perry did when was governor.
“The elected official has to think seriously about those requests. There’s not any question most jobs will, in the end, go to people in their coterie,” said Larry R. Faulkner, a former UT system chancellor and president of UT-Austin.
Many board members oversee major Texas companies and bring a valuable business acumen to running complex university systems. Regents work for free and the positions can be very demanding.
“Running an organization that is at or close to a billion dollars is not for the faint of heart, and the leadership of those entities is incredibly challenging,” said Henry Stoever, president of the Association of Governing Boards, which provides guidance to nonprofit and higher education boards across the country. But he said boards need “diversity of experiences” in order “to ask good questions, avoid pitfalls and understand the needs of different stakeholder groups.”
But business leadership doesn’t necessarily translate into an understanding of how higher education should be managed, said Sondra Barringer, a professor at Southern Methodist University who studies higher education governance.
“Yes, you bring fantastic business experience. But if you don’t have the higher ed experience to kind of say, ‘OK, yes, that’s a great idea, but how do we balance that with the particular nuances of this institution,’ sometimes it creates conflict and potentially poor decision-making,” she said.
Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a left-leaning nonprofit organization that examines political corruption in the state, said the concentration of donors on boards gives the perception that the seats are for sale.
“No one who is looking can deny that that is how the system works: that the big donors get the best appointments,” he said.
Abbott did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story. But at a recent press conference, when he was asked by the Tribune about whether donors have outsized influence on state policy, he replied, “I have equal access to everybody across the state.”
A lack of diversity
Since Abbott first announced his run for governor in 2013, he’s amassed $282 million in direct and in-kind donations, when adjusted for inflation.
A Tribune analysis found nearly $28 million — about 11% of all money raised while running for governor — has come from people Abbott has appointed to serve on university system boards or the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Put another way, $1 out of every $11 raised since 2013 came from someone sitting on a higher education board.
The donors, who are mostly white men, dominate boards even as universities are being tasked with improving recruitment, graduation and retention rates for students from underrepresented communities — in particular Black students. Texas university boards are required by law to reflect diversity of geography, but not of race or ethnicity.
Nearly two-thirds of people sitting on higher education boards are white, while non-Hispanic whites make up only 40% of Texas’ population. Abbott’s appointments of Black Texans most commonly sit on the board of Houston-based Texas Southern University, which is a historically Black college and university system. Setting Texas Southern aside, white people make up around 70% of Abbott’s appointments to the other nine boards, excluding student regents.
Overall, around 13% of regents are Hispanic, even though Hispanics are now the state’s largest demographic group and the majority of public universities in Texas are considered Hispanic Serving Institutions by the federal government, which means undergraduate enrollment is at least 25% Hispanic.
Some regents who have donated to Abbott have given just a few hundred dollars, and not all people who sit on higher education boards are donors. But a Tribune analysis shows donors and non-donors are not evenly distributed among boards. The majority of nondonors either sit on boards of smaller systems — such as the Texas Woman’s University Board of Regents, who are mostly women, or the Texas Southern University Board, a historically Black institution — or are other people of color. The vast majority of white men who sit on any higher education board have given more than $20,000 to the governor’s campaign.
Seven of Abbott’s 11 appointees to the UT System board are white. Three are Hispanic and one appointee is Black. The UT system’s student enrollment across its eight universities and four health institutions for the fall 2021 semester was 44% Hispanic, 24% white and 7.5% Black. At the flagship university in Austin, 37% of students are white, 24% are Hispanic, 20% are Asian and 5% are Back.
Some students believe that having overwhelmingly older, white boards can contribute to friction between administrators and students, who are increasingly young people of color.
“We care so much more about just having whomever is representing a group of people be reflective of that group of people,” said UT-Austin sophomore Dena Antowan, who is in student government.
Board members haven’t been timid about weighing in on sensitive issues at the university level.
One Abbott donor, former state senator Kevin P. Eltife, has been particularly influential at the University of Texas, where he has been a regent since 2017. He has given nearly $150,000 to the governor since 2013, primarily through his campaign fund.
When students, including football players, called on UT-Austin to get rid of its school spirit song, “The Eyes of Texas,” Eltife was an adamant supporter of UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell’s decision to keep the song. The board issued a statement that it stood “unequivocally and unanimously” behind the decision. Hartzell answers to the UT board of regents.
The 1903 song is controversial because it was first sung at a minstrel show. Protests over the song erupted as universities nationwide reckoned with their pasts after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But calls for the song’s removal angered university boosters, some of whom threatened to withdraw support if the school stopped using the song.
(Hartzell announced that the song would remain but he also commissioned a scholarly review of the song’s history. That review determined that while the song debuted at a minstrel show where students likely wore blackface, the song’s intent was “not overtly racist.”)
Eltife voiced his criticism when the University of Texas at San Antonio announced it would stop displaying the iconic “Come and Take It” flag at football games. University President Taylor Eighmy said the flag had become associated with anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant groups.
“The Board of Regents does not support abandoning traditions and history that mean much to students, alumni, and other Texans,” Eltife said about dropping the flag. “I am very disappointed with this decision and will immediately ask our Board to establish policies that ensure that the governing body of the UT System will have the opportunity in the future to be consulted before important university traditions and observances are changed.”
A system spokesperson said a policy is still in the works.
Eltife also quietly represented the board in his work with Hartzell and the state’s lieutenant governor to bring a conservative think tank to UT-Austin. The proposed Liberty Institute — which also involved high-profile Republican donors — drew criticism from faculty who feared that it might politicize the university. Early proposals for the center suggested it be overseen by alumni and friends “committed to the mission,” unlike other academic centers on campus.
The university has since said the project, now known as the Civitas Institute, would operate through the normal academic channels.
Boards should oversee finances and planning, not micromanage the day-to-day, which historically “is not their purview,” Barringer said.
“They like the prestige”
Critics say the extent to which deep-pocketed donors dominate the boards can appear unseemly.
“Having the ability to write a $100,000 check gets you in front of the line of all those who might be qualified,” McDonald said. “They expect something in return and it keeps the system going, if you will. You’re responsible for the governor having the governorship he or she holds because of the money you’ve given, and getting something in return is almost human nature.”
As expected in Texas, football fandom is a motivation for donors and regents. Regents decide coaches’ contracts and have had to sign off on consequential conference changes like when Texas A&M and UT-Austin joined the Southeastern Conference. At the University of Houston, longtime regent Fertitta wielded his influence last year to help the university athletics program join the Big 12 Athletic Conference. Using his political connections, Fertitta “just made it happen,” athletics director Chris Pezman told the Houston Chronicle.
Board assignments also come with access to university events, including the chance to attend football games in exclusive boxes hosted by chancellors and university presidents. Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and other state representatives are known to be guests at the VIP suites at college football games, allowing people in power to socialize as they munch on snacks from the buffets and sip on alcohol from fully stocked refrigerators.
Former Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said board members “care about higher education, they want to be involved, but they like the prestige.”
Paredes said while he was commissioner, he often heard from people on the governor’s staff how intensely people clamored to be on boards.
“It’s an interesting comment on the values in Texas, but I really think in a lot of cases it’s about football tickets,” he said. “Those kinds of perks, those freebies of tickets, they make a difference. … Getting VIP parking permits, particularly at the institutions [like] Houston, UT and A&M, they make a huge difference.”
At least one former university regent agreed.
“There are no real benefits offered to regents other than what most of them secretly desire, which is to have their egos stroked and be included in the most exclusive cocktail parties,” former UT System regent Wallace L. Hall Jr. said in an email. “Sadly, it really is no more complicated than that.”
Hall was nominated by former Gov. Rick Perry to serve on the UT system board and was quickly seen as an agitator. He was accused by university boosters in the statehouse and on the 40 acres of conducting a witch hunt against former UT-Austin president Bill Powers and he requested hundreds of documents from the flagship via open records request.
But his efforts helped unearth that lawmakers in the state were helping students gain admission to the selective university by writing letters to university leaders. That included Eltife when he was a state senator. He said he wrote the letter to then-president Bill Powers on behalf of a constituent.
The fact that Eltife ultimately became chair of the system board, Hall said, demonstrates that “higher ed institutions are used by the state’s politicians for fundraising, self-promotion and securing votes.”
“Why else would Governor Abbott appoint an ex-state senator and donor who was involved in the inappropriate back-door admissions program at UT Austin to the university’s board of regents, and then make him the chair?” he said.
Eltife did not respond to requests for an interview.
“Appearance of pay-to-play”
The governor’s picks for boards and commissions are approved by the Senate Nominations Committee, though state lawmakers say the senator who represents the area in which the nominee resides has the right to object to the governor’s nomination.
A member of that committee, state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, said the large number of donors appointed to university boards does “give an appearance of pay-to-play.”
“It certainly tilts the representation on these boards toward a certain demographic that is no longer representative of our state, and that probably the solution here is in a contemplation of limits on political campaigns,” she said, though she admitted that would be difficult to achieve. Texas is one of 11 states that does not limit how much an individual can donate to a political campaign.
The nominations committee has rarely opposed a nomination from Abbott over the years. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who also serves on the nominations committee but is not running for reelection, said he views these roles as the governor’s appointees first and foremost.
“It’s not strictly just donors, but you’re right, the largest percentage are good donors,” Seliger said. “But who should the governor appoint other than those people?”
Yet the dozens of Texas representatives who voted for Larson’s bill in 2017 were supportive of a system that would disqualify large donors from these positions and likely expand the potential pool of candidates.
A few months after the 2017 legislative session ended, Abbott endorsed Larson’s primary challenger. Abbott also backed the 2018 primary opponent of another state House Republican who had sided with Larson, state Rep. Wayne Faircloth of Galveston.
“If you want to be on the Board of Regents at the University of Texas, you need to make a donation,” Faircloth had said at a candidate forum. “I don’t think that’s right. We think that needs to be addressed.”
Faircloth lost the primary.
Lawmakers say it’s unlikely a bill similar to Larson’s will be introduced this upcoming session.
That’s disappointing to former UT System regent Hall.
“Governors get to select our regents, and the regents can be faithful as fiduciaries to our institutions or loyal as political donors, but not both.”
Carla Astudillo, Zach Despart and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Energy Transfer, S. Javaid Anwar, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas Southern University - Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas A&M University System, University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Texas System and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.