Dr. Austin Lane Pushes Back on TSU Board of Regents Claims; Accuses Board of Conducting a ‘Witch Hunt’
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a “smoking gun” is defined as “something that serves as conclusive evidence or proof (as of a crime or scientific theory).”
On this past Tuesday, February 4th, a standing room and overflow crowd of concerned attendees showed up to the Texas Southern University (TSU) Special Called Board of Regents Meeting to finally hear the key details surrounding why the Board had placed TSU President Dr. Austin Lane on paid administrative leave and to learn whether the Board would be reinstating Dr. Lane or terminating him. After a five-hour delay, those attendees finally learned the fate of Dr. Lane.
Needless to say, however, a “smoking gun” was not provided.
In a 6-1 decision, the TSU Board of Regents voted to terminate the 12th president of the storied institution and Dr. Lane was immediately provided a “Notice of Termination for Cause” letter after the vote. The major areas outlined in the notice letter were the following:
- “failure to advise and fully report” to the board his knowledge of any actions that could cause harm to the University; and
- engaging in actions that have a “material adverse effect” on the University’s reputation and brand.
According to a statement released by the TSU Board of Regents, they voted to terminate Dr. Lane “based on an audit committee’s finding that Dr. Lane violated his contract including the termination for cause provision. His actions relate in part to failure to report to the board information relating to improper payments for admissions to the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and for the improper awarding of scholarships to students, which led in part to the initiation of a comprehensive investigation. The improprieties in the law school involved a former official who is no longer employed in the law school.”
The statement went on to say that “an investigation conducted by the University’s internal auditor, third-party investigators and board counsel concluded that Dr. Lane failed to appropriately act on or inform the Board about allegations of fraud committed by the former law school official, including evidence of a student payment for admission to the school. These and other actions had the effect of concealing such fraud. The investigation also found attempts to conceal excessive entertainment expenses through a process inconsistent with Dr. Lane’s contract that would have prevented Board scrutiny of such expenses. It also found that Dr. Lane and his assistant attempted to direct another former law school official to misrepresent a report to a national law school accreditation review board. The Board took additional steps to confirm its findings utilizing three separate law firms to assist with the process.”
According to the termination letter, Dr. Lane was given “30 days to dispute any facts” and to “provide additional evidence to support such a dispute.”
Dr. Lane wasted no time responding within the 30 day timeframe, holding his own press conference two days later at The Ensemble Theater to refute the claims.
“When I received the termination letter they provided me and read it, I thought to myself, ‘Man…this is a joke’,” Dr. Lane exclaimed. “They needed three law firms and a PR firm to write a poorly written, accusation-filled document, with no facts.”
Dr. Lane made sure to mention that the alumni, the students and the institution were of utmost importance to him and he apologized for what he called a “witch hunt” against him that has “embarrassed” the University in a major way.
“Being in a witch hunt for the first time ever in my career is very disturbing,” said Dr. Lane. “I provided an eight-page document that counters every single point they (TSU Board of Regents) were trying to make, where they had no evidence at all to prove their claims.”
The eight-page document (attached) released by Dr. Lane include some startling responses and provide far more detail than what the TSU Board of Regents has provided to date.
In response to the fraud allegations, Dr. Lane states in the document:
“The board has also accused me of being presented with evidence of fraud committed by the former assistant dean and student one. First and foremost, I was just informed for the first time on February 4 during the special called meeting about the allegations they were making against me. Until then, I have never been given an opportunity to know what I was being accused of. Secondly, I have not been presented with any alleged evidence of fraud that was supposedly committed from the board regarding the investigation they took over from the internal auditor. They have accused me of knowing about the evidence and that is false and has never been shared with me by anyone to date. I also don’t know who they are referring to when they mention “student one” in their claim against me. They alleged that my subordinate and I “allowed this student to be admitted into the university into another graduate program for which he was not qualified without having filed an application for admissions.” I have absolutely nothing to do with graduate admissions and have never talked to “student one” nor did I authorize my provost to grant any admissions into graduate school for this person. The provost and dean of the graduate school can and will dispel this erroneous claim against me. How many presidents of universities across this country serve as admissions directors? None. We have processes in place and personnel responsible for following admissions processes.
Since my arrival in 2016, we have never had an issue with undergraduate or graduate admissions. Periodically, we have also launched our own audits. This is done to check our areas to make sure they are functioning properly. If we find that they are not, we have the auditor write up the findings and make sure management has plans to correct. We don’t call the media, put out vague and premature press releases, or start accusing staff or wrongdoing until we have UNCOVERED evidence that confirms our suspicions. The board has no evidence that demonstrates I knew “student one” or that I directed my provost to admit this person to another program. The provost and dean of the graduate school are responsible for this function and can prove that the student was admitted appropriately and that I had nothing to do with his admissions nor did I ever talk to him about entering TSU in any program.
The board also indicated that
“after being made aware of the above, they sought the assistance of the
university’s internal auditor, third party investigators and hired special
employment law counsel to investigate these matters.” This is false. The
allegation was already being handled by the internal auditor. Instead, they
took over the investigation from the internal auditor, hired expensive third
party investigators and special employment law counsel (employed by O’Hanlon)
that harassed myself, provost, special assistant and general counsel through a
number of rushed interviews in November. Each of us complied with the
interviews even though we were not clear on why we were being interviewed.
My first interview was with the internal auditor. She called me and we talked for about 10 minutes. I told her that I had no knowledge of any fraud and asked her if she had completed her investigation that was sent to her by the dean of the law school. After a series of accusatory interviews conducted by the board hired firms, their board counsel sent all regents a letter on December 12, 2019 stating that she could not get all technology staff to cooperate on getting information from the information technology system and that the foundation wasn’t being cooperative. Board counsel also indicated that the board should solicit the help of the Texas Rangers. Never once was I or any member of my staff cited in this letter as doing something wrong, violating any policy, or failing to alert the board.
During my second interview that lasted almost four hours, I was again questioned about things that had absolutely nothing to do with any alleged admissions improprieties. I again inquired about the status of the investigation and specifically asked the auditor and board appointed attorney if they had uncovered any fraud from the allegation that was sent by the dean of the law school. They both said they were still investigating and had not uncovered anything. I questioned them about why this wasn’t being handled by the internal auditor via policy and they gave me no response other than the board hired firms to assist the internal auditor. It was obvious that the board and the firms had taken over the process and turned their attention on myself and my staff instead of the assistant dean that was terminated. Again, no evidence of wrongdoing linked to me and I believe the interview took four hours because she was off topic and talking about other things besides admissions. I answered all her questions truthfully and indicated to her that if she wanted another interview I would have to consult with my attorney. I did so because it was obvious she was looking for anything to accuse me of with her line of questioning.”
According to Dr. Lane, from the document he provided in response, another primary area of concern was the fact that SACS had just cited the TSU Board of Regents in several areas for non-compliance, and per Dr. Lane, this is seemingly most problematic, because of the following:
4.2b-The governing board ensures a clear and appropriate distinction between the policy-making function of the board and the responsibility of the administration and faculty to administer and implement policy.
To date, the board is out of compliance per SACS during their most recent by-law change that allows them to hire and fire all employees. This is a direct violation of the standard and one that typically causes a university to lose accreditation. The SACS liaison, general counsel and myself sent letters to Chairman Mack warning him that this would present a problem for the university and recommend he change the by-law but we received no response and the policy is still in place today with Regent Terrell (appointed by chairman Mack) approving and denying all personnel decisions in his role as personnel committee chair. Again, this is a clear violation of the SACS standard and places the board members at risk. In a recent article entitled, “This University Board Now Has The Power to Fire Anyone-Even Down to The Janitor” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, author Lindsey Ellis quotes the president of SACS, Dr. Belle Wheelan as saying, “At first blush, this is unusual and looks like overreach into administrative roles.” Ellen Chaffee, a college-governance consultant stated in the article that, “the board’s policy deviates sharply from best practices and raises numerous concerns. I’ve read dozens of board by-laws, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Another troubling point made by Dr. Lane in regards to the by-laws changes that allow the TSU Board of Regents to hire and fire all employees, is the following from his statement:
“During the October 25th Board meeting (see the video of meeting on the Board website), the regents approved a change in the by-laws. Regent Carter is over the by-laws committee and the board voted to have the authority to hire and fire all staff, down to the janitor as Regent Terrell put it in his comments during this meeting. After the meeting, I was requested to come into closed session with all my staff and we were admonished and basically threatened to stop what we are doing when board members call. We were also told by Chairman Mack that Regent Terrell would be over all hiring and firing and that we must send all decisions related to employment to him as of October 25, 2019. He never mentioned sending any employees prior to October 25 that had already been hired, fired or demoted to him. However, a few days after this meeting, he requested to see employees that were hired, fired or demoted from a year ago. When we sent the list to him, we were surprised to see that he asked two employees that had ongoing personnel issues and recommended by their supervisor for termination or scheduled to resign to have their letters rescinded and placed back in their positions. He also instructed HR to remove a personnel document for an employee that was scheduled to be terminated in December. This employee was given notice by me in August/September (before October 25 mandate) that he would be demoted and have until December to find other employment. I received notice from Regent Terrell that this employee, despite having performance issues, would not be terminated in December. He never asked me or the other supervisors about any of their performance issues. To date, Regent Terrell has approved more than 80 personnel decisions. He has also been heavily involved in leading my investigation with the firms employed by the board.”
In keeping with providing definitions from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a “witch hunt” is defined as “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views.”
Dr. Lane is adamant that he has done nothing wrong and is going all out to prove his innocence and protect himself against the assassination of his character.
The truth of the matter is, this situation has been allowed to spiral out of control, down an unfortunate path of ego-driven destruction that has given this storied institution the type of negative attention it does not need. Texas Southern University is bigger than the TSU Board of Regents, bigger than Dr. Lane, bigger than the faculty and administration.
Texas Southern University belongs to the community, along with the alumni who have built their careers as a result of attending TSU, and the current students who will soon join the ranks of graduates who have benefited from attending TSU.
These recent actions have placed the University, and its future, in unnecessary at-risk.
Questions and stereotypes about whether African Americans can effectively govern institutions, such as TSU, should never be given ammunition by unfounded allegations or petty differences.
If there is a “smoking gun,” then the Board of Regents needs to produce it now. If there are still “ongoing investigations,” then the Board of Regents owes it to all stakeholders to provide that information of what law enforcement agencies or entities are investigating now.
As stated before, there is so much more to unpack and the Houston Forward Times continues to receive more information and details each and every day.
Needless to say, things are sure to get very interesting between now and the remaining 30-day timeframe given to Dr. Lane to respond to the TSU Board of Regents, so stay tuned and be on the lookout for more information as it becomes available.