Author Archives: Matthew Watkins

Fired in 2009, football coach Mike Leach still rages at Texas Tech and Texas law

Washington State University football coach Mike Leach was preparing for a game against the University of Colorado two weeks ago when another foe leapt into his mind.

“They are outright crooks at Texas Tech,” the coach declared about 15 minutes into his weekly press conference, referencing the school where he worked before going to Washington State. “Are there crooks there? Yeah. I mean, like, felons. They ought to put them in jail.”

Leach was fired by Texas Tech University nearly eight years ago. But his outburst against his former employer surprised no one. Ever since he left, he has been waging a fight to get more than $2 million he believes Tech owes him from his coaching tenure. He has taken that fight to court, the Texas Capitol and to social media. But so far, state law has left him helpless in the quest to get the money he thinks he’s owed.

He has been stymied by Texas law, which protects the state and its entities from lawsuits — even if the entity violates a contract. So with the legal route blocked, he has turned his focus in recent months to shifting public opinion against Tech and the law that is protecting it.

About six weeks ago, he hired a former Houston investigative television reporter, Wayne Dolcefino, to try to dig up dirt and increase public pressure on Tech.

“Mike Leach went through the legal system, and he got shafted because there is a law that protects Texas Tech — that allows them to cheat someone out of a contract,” Dolcefino said last week. “The sad thing about that is I am sure it happens throughout the state. We have a law that allows the government to totally screw you around and get away with it.”

Whether Leach actually got screwed is a question that remains hotly debated. Leach was relieved of his duties in the final days of 2009 — right before a longevity clause on his contract kicked in that would have paid him $800,000. He had been arguably the most successful football coach in Tech history and was a hero to many students and alumni because of his eccentricity and innovative play-calling. His postgame press conferences were legendary, as he was known to indulge reporters in chats on his obsessions like pirates and the artist Jackson Pollock.

School officials said at the time that allegations of mistreating players and “insubordination” gave the school little choice but to fire him. His removal had been set in motion a few weeks earlier when the family of wide receiver Adam James complained that James was told to sit in a dark closet while suffering from concussion symptoms.

‘The facts and circumstances that led to his termination for cause are clear,” the school said in a statement. “He admittedly ordered that a student-athlete with a concussion be placed in a darkened area — not an athletic training area — and forced to stand. This occurred on two occasions.”

Leach and his supporters, meanwhile, argue that he was actually fired over personality conflicts with Tech’s leadership at the time, which they say were stoked during a tense contract negotiation from months earlier. Most of those leaders have since departed Tech — the school has had turnover at president and chancellor positions since Leach left.

The distinction mattered. Leach’s new contract had a five-year term, and it promised him $400,000 for each remaining year if he were fired before it ran out. But the buyout only kicked in if he were fired “without cause” — basically if he hadn’t done anything wrong but lose football games. The school fired him “with cause,” however, so it claimed it didn’t have to pay him the $1.6 million it would have otherwise owed him.

Leach was outraged and demanded that buyout money, plus the $800,000 he would have received if he had stayed on as coach for one more day. But he soon found there was little he could do. He tried to take the school to court, but his lawsuit was tossed out due to “sovereign immunity,” the legal concept that protects the state from lawsuits. The concept stems from the idea that the state wouldn’t be able to conduct its necessary business if the threat of lawsuits was constantly hanging over its head. The concept isn’t unusual — the federal government is also protected by sovereign immunity. But Texas’ sovereign immunity provision is particularly strong and applies to lawsuits over government contracts as well.

Leach’s frustration is not unusual, said Michael Shaunessy, an Austin attorney with experience suing and representing government entities and who trains lawyers across the state on sovereign immunity. The immunity does serve an important purpose, Shaunessy said, but also leaves contractors vulnerable if their interpretation of the contract differs from that of the state.

“It adversely affects people’s willingness to do business with the state of Texas,” he said. “I have clients who charge more when they are doing work for a government entity in Texas.”

Still, he said, he doesn’t have that much sympathy for Leach, who makes about $3 million per year as Washington State’s coach. (Washington State has traditionally been a bottom-dweller in the Pac 12 Conference, but has a strong 7-2 record under Leach this year.)

“If we are going to make a change about sovereign immunity on the contract side, we need to do that because it has a greater impact on businesses that do business with the state — and the impact it has on the state,” Shaunessy said. “To get into it over Mike Leach just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Leach has shown no sign of giving up. In 2011, with the pro bono help of a leading Austin lobbyist, he urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would have allowed him to sue Tech. A sympathetic House member, Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, filed a bill on his behalf, but it never made it out of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee.

Eiland and Leach then enlisted two other House members to ask for then-Attorney General Greg Abbott’s opinion about whether Leach should be allowed to sue, but they didn’t make any progress on that front.

Now, Leach is making a public relations push. Dolcefino recently launched a website,, that features a petition signed by about 1,800 people and background information on sovereign immunity. The site compares Texas’ sovereign immunity to laws in oppressive regimes like North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Dolcefino also hosted a rally outside a recent Tech home football game, giving out balloons and urging people to visit the website. And he has submitted multiple open records requests to the university in search of evidence of waste, abuse or fraud at the school. The goal, Dolcefino said, is to put so much pressure on Tech that it simply decides to pay Leach the money he believes he is owed.

Tech has expressed no interest in reopening the discussion, saying in its statement that “the courts decided this case years ago, and there is nothing more to add.” But Dolcefino said he is just getting started.

“Mike Leach is not the kind of guy who surrenders,” Dolcefino said.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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UT-Austin removing Confederate statues in the middle of the night

A look at the sun setting over the University of Texas at Austin Tower in 2011.

Late Sunday night, 10 days before classes were scheduled to start, workers at the University of Texas at Austin began removing multiple Confederate statues from a prominent grass mall on campus.

The statues of Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston and John Reagan were being removed because they depict parts of American history that “run counter to the university’s core values,” university President Greg Fenves wrote in an e-mail to the campus community just before 11 p.m. Sunday. A statue of former Texas Gov. James Stephen Hogg was also removed.

“We do not choose our history, but we choose what we honor and celebrate on our campus,” he wrote. “As UT students return in the coming week, I look forward to welcoming them here for a new academic year with a recommitment to an open, positive and inclusive learning environment for all.”

The removal of the statues comes about a week after unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia surrounding the removal of Confederate statues in that college town. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists protested those statues’ removal, and clashed violently with counter-protesters. One person died in the violence.

“These events make it clear, now more than ever, that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism,” he said.

A UT-Austin spokesman said in a text message that the university deliberately chose to remove the statues in the middle of the night “for public safety and to minimize disruption to the community.”

The three Confederate statues will be relocated to the Briscoe Center for American History. The statue of Hogg “will be considered for re-installation at another campus site,” Fenves said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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White nationalist rally, counter protest planned at Texas A&M on Sept. 11

State police in riot gear face protesters at Texas A&M during white nationalist Richard Spencer's visit on December 6, 2016.

As the nation watched tension between white nationalists and counter protestors turn violent Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, worries began to emerge that the discord would come to a Texas college town next.

Preston Wiginton, a Texan with deep ties to white nationalist movements, announced Saturday afternoon that he plans to host a “White Lives Matter” rally next month on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. At the top of a press release announcing the event, he declared “TODAY CHARLOTTESVILLE TOMORROW TEXAS A&M.”

Word of the planned rally, which Wiginton said will take place on Sept. 11, generated immediate outrage on social media. Within hours, a counter protest had been planned. That event will be called “BTHO Hate,” the name of which borrows from an A&M football chant expressing the desire to “beat the hell outta” the opposing team.

The organizer of that protest said the event would be nonviolent, and was organized to “demonstrate that members of the Aggie community do not support the hateful bigotry espoused by Wiginton and the planned speakers.”

“White supremacists keep coming to our campus thinking we’re going to support them,” said Adam Key, a doctoral student at A&M and the organizer of the counter protest. “Just like the last time they showed up, we want to demonstrate as clearly as we can that their ideas are not welcome here.”

The last time was in December, when Wiginton hosted Richard Spencer, a leader of the white nationalist movement known as the alt-right. About 400 people attended Spencer’s speech, and the night seemed constantly on the brink of boiling over. Spencer’s talk was interrupted repeatedly with shouting, pushing and shoving among people in the crowd.

Outside, thousands of people protested, leading the Texas Department of Public Safety to clear A&M’s Memorial Student Center out of safety concerns. Meanwhile, A&M held its own simultaneous concert event at its football stadium across the street.

“We hoped that December was the last time we would have to protest them,” Key said. “Aggies started fighting Nazis in World War II. We have no plans to stop any time soon.”

The planned sight for Wiginton’s rally is a fountain named after famous Aggie Gen. James Earl Rudder, who led a group of Army Rangers up 100-foot cliffs to topple Nazi gun barracks during the D-Day invasion.

Wiginton, who briefly attended A&M and has organized several white nationalist events at the school, said in his press release that he has invited Spencer back to College Station for the September event. There will be other speakers and a DJ, too, he said. The focus, he said, will be to protest “the liberal agenda of White Guilt and white genocide that is taught at most all universities in America.” There will also protests against specific A&M professors.

“Various groups throughout the country concerned with the political status of whites in America will be attending as well,” he wrote.

Details for the counter event were less specific. Key said participants will try to get as close to Wiginton’s event as possible. On Facebook, organizers proposed forming a “maroon wall” of students to block Wiginton’s message from the general public. A&M students used a similar strategy when the infamous Westboro Baptist Church protested a military funeral in College Station in 2012.

A&M hasn’t officially responded to the protest plans.

Disclosure: Texas A&M has been a financial supporter of The Texas TribuneA complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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What it means for Texas colleges if Trump targets affirmative action

The Tower at the University of Texas at Austin on June 27, 2017.

For about a year starting in June 2016, the practice of affirmative action in Texas university admissions seemed secure.

The University of Texas at Austin won a U.S. Supreme Court case on the issue — for the second time. And UT-Austin officials said they were determined to continue to consider the race of applicants as a small factor in admissions decisions for the foreseeable future.

But this summer, doubt has crept back in. On Tuesday, The New York Times broke the news that the U.S. Department of Justice under President Donald Trump plans to investigate and possibly sue universities that use affirmative action if its lawyers believe those policies unfairly discriminate against white or Asian students. And in June, the man behind the case that took UT-Austin to the Supreme Court filed another lawsuit alleging discrimination against white people at UT-Austin. This time, the case is in state court.

The Department of Justice news stunned the world of higher education. Questions abound. Here’s what we know now about what this means for Texas:

Not many schools in Texas use affirmative action

It’s impossible to know at this point whether the Department of Justice will set its sights on any Texas schools. The New York Times reported that the department is still staffing up for the mission, and it doesn’t appear to have specific plans or strategies set. But Texas doesn’t seem like an easy target. Only two public universities in Texas — UT-Austin and Midwestern State University — consider the race of their applicants in freshman admissions. And except for Rice University and Southern Methodist University, most of the prominent private universities don’t use it, either.

UT-Austin policy has been a target in the past. But it seems relatively safe in this case. 

UT-Austin’s use of affirmative action has been thoroughly vetted by the federal courts. Abigail Fisher, a white student from Sugar Land, sued UT-Austin in 2008, saying she was denied admission even though she felt there were minority candidates who were less qualified than her. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court twice. Each time, the court upheld the practice of affirmative action.

In 2016, the court’s majority opinion specifically found UT-Austin’s policy constitutional. In order to mount a successful case against UT-Austin, the Justice Department would probably have to persuade the Supreme Court to reverse its recent ruling.

“Right now, I think UT is very well insulated,” said Mishell Kneeland, a former assistant attorney general in Texas who helped represent UT-Austin in the Fisher case.

Some Texas schools don’t use affirmative action because of the Top 10 Percent Rule.

Why don’t more Texas schools use affirmative action? Because the state has a unique method of increasing diversity at its schools. The origins of that method, known as the Top 10 Percent Rule, date back to another court decision from 1996.

That year, a U.S. appeals court ruled that UT-Austin’s use of affirmative action in law school admissions was unconstitutional. That ruling was eventually overturned, but it was at first interpreted to mean that no public school in Texas could consider the race of its applicants. In the years before the ruling was overturned, black and Hispanic enrollment in top schools began to plummet. The Texas Legislature came up with the Top 10 Percent Rule as a fix.

Under the rule, each public school is required to accept any student who graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her Texas high school’s graduating class. The idea is that schools in Texas are fairly segregated by race. Thus, accepting the top students from suburban schools, inner city schools and schools in South Texas creates more diverse universities.

Lawmakers and educators still fiercely debate how much the rule works and whether it’s fair to students from more competitive high schools. But there is no question that many universities became more racially diverse after the law went into effect. And once affirmative action became allowable again, Texas A&M University decided it didn’t need it.

UT-Austin uses the Top 10 Percent Rule, but says it still needs affirmative action

The Top 10 Percent Rule still applies to UT-Austin, but in a slightly different way. UT-Austin is such a popular school for top students that it runs the risk having more top 10 percent students than it has room for. As a result, the Texas Legislature allows UT-Austin to cap its automatic enrollees at 75 percent of incoming Texans. The other 25 percent are admitted through a more holistic process. Race is one small factor that the university considers in that process.

Despite that, UT-Austin admits a significantly higher share of black and Hispanic students through the Top 10 Percent Rule than it does from the holistic review process.

UT-Austin’s affirmative action policy could still be safe.

Affirmative action opponents might have lost at the federal level, but they’re not giving up. In June, Edward Blum, the man who recruited Abigail Fisher to sue UT-Austin last decade, took his fight to state court. He created an organization, Students for Fair Admissions, that filed a new lawsuit targeting the policy. This one claims that affirmative action at UT-Austin violates state law.

UT-Austin declined to comment for this article. But it is clearly frustrated by the case. In a legal filing on Monday, the university said Blum is trying to “re-package the same allegations and arguments that were unsuccessful in the prior suit.”

“Having lost the legal arguments they asserted from 2008 through 2016, Blum and the Fishers now claim that this honorable Court should give them a new and different result,” the filing said. “They apparently believe that their new second-choice, third-choice, and fourth-choice theories should be equally compelling to the unsuccessful arguments they pushed for eight years.”

UT-Austin is making that argument to a district judge. But Blum seems to clearly have his sights set higher: The Texas Supreme Court. That body is considerably more conservative than the U.S. Supreme Court and could be more receptive to Blum’s argument.

“I do think there is more vulnerability there,” said Kneeland, who nonetheless called UT-Austin’s affirmative action policy “terrific.”

The plaintiffs in the suit argue that UT-Austin’s policy violates the Texas Constitution and the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which says that a state employee cannot “refuse to permit [a] person to participate” in a state program because of that person’s race.

That statute, Kneeland said, “hasn’t been interpreted in this context and so it is a little bit of an open question.”

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Rice University, Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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At some Texas universities, students accused of rape can transfer without a record

The Pat Neff Hall at Baylor University on Feb. 15, 2017.

When Sierra Smith told Baylor University she’d been sexually assaulted by a classmate during a 2016 spring break trip to South Padre Island, she hoped administrators would move to protect her and other students.

It took several months of investigation, but the university eventually did, suspending the male student for three semesters for violating Baylor’s sexual violence and harassment policies.

But by then, the punishment had little effect. The student Smith reported had already transferred to a new school — without a blemish on his record.

“It bothers me that there could be another girl out there who could go through this, too,” she said.

Baylor isn’t the only school that doesn’t list disciplinary violations on its students’ transcripts. Many other universities in Texas and across the nation, including the University of North Texas, have similar policies.

Schools say they are following a practice that has been standard in higher education for years. They argue that disciplinary proceedings aren’t criminal cases — and that a transcript should be viewed as an academic file, not a disciplinary record.

Several other Texas schools, including the University of Houston, Texas State University and Texas A&M University, include notations when the investigation is final, but don’t note when a case is pending. They say they are are trying not to punish students before they have even been found responsible for wrongdoing.

But some college administrators and victims’ rights advocates worry that failing to provide notice on a transcript — either of a final or pending investigation — creates an escape hatch for students transferring to avoid punishment. A student could end up at a new school, they say, without that university ever knowing the student’s past.

“That happens routinely,” said Wanda Mercer, associate vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Texas System and an expert on the issue.

Lately, more universities are beginning to address those concerns. Baylor, for example, is currently reviewing whether it should change its policy.

But supporters of including disciplinary records on transcripts say change is coming too slowly. Case in point: An attempt to impose a statewide rule requiring the notations failed during the 2017 Texas legislative session.

Three-semester suspension

Stories of female students upset about the handling of their sexual assault cases have plagued Baylor for years. But in Smith’s instance, the university took action — even if it took longer than she had hoped.

She was a sophomore during the trip to South Padre, visiting for the night with a friend. Once there, she met up with a male student with whom she had been previously romantically involved.

“Whenever I woke up later that night, it was to him deciding that me saying no wasn’t enough deterrence,” Smith said.

Smith didn’t report the incident to the university at first. She didn’t even tell most of her friends. But soon, it began to affect her schoolwork and her personal life. She had trouble concentrating in class. And she turned to partying to take her mind off of the incident.

“I was just replaying in my head everything that happened over and over again,” she said. “Maybe I remembered it wrong. Maybe I’m going crazy.”

One day, Smith broke down crying in the office of one of her professors. She told her teacher everything, prompting a Baylor investigation. Within a couple of days, the university had sent the male student an order to avoid all contact with Smith. It also sent official notice that it was opening a disciplinary case, which is required by federal law when one student accuses another of assault.

The university ultimately found the male student responsible in the case and placed him on probation. Smith appealed that decision, and the punishment was increased to a three-semester suspension.

That final decision was little comfort for Smith, who learned that the male student had already transferred. While she was happy he was out of her life, she wondered, “What happens when he goes [to his new school]?”

Sierra Smith in Baylor's Armstrong Browning Library.
Sierra Smith in Baylor University’s Armstrong Browning Library. Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Slowly, changing attitudes

For the UT System’s Mercer, it comes as no surprise that a student would try to transfer amid a disciplinary case.

“If you are someone who is charged and you don’t feel like you have violated the rules, the processes can take some time,” she said. “You might say, ‘The semester is not over yet, but I am out of here.’”

Mercer, who wrote her Ph.D dissertation on the subject, has spent years warning universities about that possibility. The solution is simple, she says: Include a notation of a disciplinary case on the student’s transcript, so any future school will know to ask questions before admitting the student. She helped the UT System devise such a policy in recent years. Texas Tech University takes a similar approach.

Many other schools have been reluctant. A 2015 national survey of university registrars found that about 40 percent didn’t support including disciplinary notations on transcripts.

That opposition appears to be shrinking. For two decades, the influential American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers actively discouraged schools from making note of disciplinary issues on transcripts. In December 2015, the group switched to being neutral on the subject. Last month, it shifted again and began encouraging such notations when disciplinary cases are final. The group doesn’t specifically recommend a policy on pending disciplinary cases.

“It’s a touchy issue,” said Kristi Wold-McCormick, the registrar at the University of Colorado who chaired the task force that recommended the most recent change. “When a conduct case is pending and an investigation is underway, we don’t know the outcome yet.”

Wold-McCormick said some registrars still believe transcripts should solely be academic documents — not records of disciplinary matters. She said others are worried about legal liability; students might sue if they feel they were blocked from transferring because of a note on their transcript.

There is also concern about how transcript notations could affect the futures of punished students. Disciplinary notations don’t usually say what students were punished for — only that they were suspended or expelled. A student kicked out for drinking at a conservative school might have a hard time getting into a new school that isn’t overly concerned with that offense.

While Baylor officials wouldn’t comment publicly on their policy, background information they provided to The Texas Tribune suggests its administrators share some of those concerns.

Advocates for the notations say those worries are easily addressed: Limit the use of notations to major offenses — those serious enough to warrant expulsion or suspension. A notation for a suspension could be removed from a transcript once the term of the suspension is complete, they say.

The advocates also add that when there’s no criminal record, a student’s transcript may be a future university’s only source of warning. Sexual assault cases involving two students who know each other rarely make it to criminal court, because victims are often reluctant to go through a public trial and prosecutors hesitate to take on cases that pit one student’s word against another’s.

But many universities worry about punishing a student too much too soon. Just because someone is under investigation doesn’t mean they are guilty, school officials say. Many universities — including A&M, which adds transcript notations only when the final results are in — say they will provide information on pending investigations verbally to transfer universities conducting background checks on potential students.

House bill fails

In recent years, two states, New York and Virginia, have adopted laws that establish statewide disciplinary notation policies. This year, Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, tried to make Texas the third. His proposal, House Bill 3142, would have required notations for all university cases that resulted in a major punishment.

Smith traveled from Waco to Austin to testify in favor of the proposal. At a late-night committee hearing in April, she told the Texas House Higher Education Committee her story.

“I was not the first girl he came into contact with,” she told legislators, “and I will not be the last.”

“So the next time a girl decides to be brave enough to report him — because it will happen again — there will be no record,” she added. “The school will not know what has happened in the past and he will run away again or get off with nothing.”

A week later, the committee unanimously advanced the bill. But Turner’s legislation suffered a common fate in the Texas Capitol — the clock ran out on the legislative session before the Texas House could vote on it.

Turner and Smith both said they hope universities will consider changing their policies on their own. If not, Turner said he expects to file the bill again in 2019. And Smith, an aspiring lawyer, said she’ll be there again to tell her story.

“I hope to continue to advocate for these things for the rest of my life,” she said.

Disclosure: Baylor University, the University of Texas System, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, Texas State University, Texas Tech University and the University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Federal judge throws out effort by UT professors to overturn campus carry

Stephanie Odam of Austin marches in a campus carry protest in Austin, Jan 8, 2015.

A federal judge has dismissed a longshot lawsuit filed by three University of Texas at Austin professors seeking to overturn the state’s 2015 campus carry law, which allows people to carry concealed handguns inside most public university buildings.

District Judge Lee Yeakel wrote in his decision that the professors — Jennifer Lynn Glass, Lisa Moore and Mia Carter — couldn’t present any “concrete evidence to substantiate their fears” that campus carry would have a chilling effect on free speech.

The professors claimed, among other arguments, that the law violated their First Amendment rights, since the possibility of a gun being in their classrooms might make them hesitant to discuss controversial issues. In dismissing the suit, Yeakel said the professors didn’t have standing to sue.

But Renea Hicks, the attorney representing the three UT professors, said the specifics of the ruling leave the case’s future uncertain. While Yeakel threw out the case entirely, he only only addressed one of the legal arguments, the question of a First Amendment violation.

“We had other claims in the lawsuit beyond that — a Second Amendment claim, an equal protection claim. The order accompanying his dismissal doesn’t seem to address those issues,” Hicks said in an interview Friday. “So there’s a bit of confusion on our part.”

Hicks, who had not yet conferred with his clients when reached Friday, said he is not sure what course of action he and the plaintiffs will take. They have 28 days from July 6 to ask Yeakel for clarification, and 30 days to file an appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The ruling was issued late Thursday, exactly one year after the original lawsuit was filed. On Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office defended the state in the case, praised the decision.

“The court’s ruling today is the correct outcome,” Paxton said. “The fact that a small group of professors dislike a law and speculate about a ‘chilling effect’ is hardly a valid basis to set the law aside.”

Campus carry became law in 2015, but didn’t go into effect until Aug. 1, 2016. It stirred up widespread opposition among faculty and many students — especially on the UT-Austin campus. But so far, there have been no major incidents and protests on campus have all but disappeared.

Emma Platoff contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Man behind Fisher affirmative action case files new lawsuit against UT-Austin

The man who helped Abigail Fisher sue the University of Texas at Austin for discrimination in a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court twice is suing UT-Austin once again.

This time, he claims the university’s use of affirmative action violates the Texas Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. 

Edward Blum’s group Students for Fair Admissions filed the suit in Travis County court Tuesday. The group cites the Texas Equal Rights Amendment, which bans discrimination based on “sex, race, color, creed or national origin” in arguing that UT-Austin shouldn’t be allowed to give slight preference to minorities in admissions. 

Blum’s previous suit spent years in federal courts. It eventually failed, following a 4-3 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court that UT-Austin could consider the race of its applicants as a minor factor. That ruling should have no bearing on how state courts analyze the Texas Constitution, Blum said. 

“We believe that most Texas judges and justices will agree with our interpretation of the Texas Constitution,” he said in a press release. 

UT-Austin officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The university has been using affirmative action in a limited way since a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision made it allowable in Texas. About three-fourths of its Texas students are admitted through an admissions policy known as the Top 10 Percent Rule, which grants automatic admission to students who graduate near the top of their high school’s class. UT-Austin considers the race of its applicants as a minor factor when considering the rest of its applicants. 


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Citing religious refusal of adoption rule, California bans state travel to Texas

Saying that a new Texas law allowing child welfare providers to deny adoptions to parents based on “sincerely held religious beliefs” is discriminatory, California’s attorney general on Thursday banned state-funded travel to Texas. 

The attorney general’s office said in a news release that Texas’ House Bill 3859 “allows foster care agencies to discriminate against children in foster care and potentially disqualify LGBT families from the state’s foster and adoption system.” Therefore, California agencies, public universities and boards won’t be able to pay for their employees or board members to travel to Texas for work-related trips, the state’s attorney general declared. 

“While the California DOJ works to protect the rights of all our people, discriminatory laws in any part of our country send all of us several steps back,” said Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general. “That’s why when California said we would not tolerate discrimination against LGBTQ members of our community, we meant it.”

The decision drew a mocking response from the office of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who signed the bill into law this month. 

“California may be able to stop their state employees,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman, “but they can’t stop all the businesses that are fleeing over taxation and regulation, and relocating to Texas.”

Becerra has the authority to issue such a ban, thanks to a law that went into effect Jan. 1 prohibiting state-funded travel to states that have discriminatory laws on the books. The new law requires the attorney general to keep a list of such discriminatory laws. 

Many people speculated during the 2017 regular legislative session that Texas would be added to the list if it passed a bill setting rules for which bathrooms transgender people can use. That legislation failed during the regular session. Meanwhile, the adoption bill wasn’t really on the radar of people concerned about California state travel. 

HB 3859, authored by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, says that faith-based organizations can also place a child in a religious school; deny referrals for certain contraceptives, drugs or devices; and refuse to contract with other organizations that don’t share their religious beliefs. Under the law, if an organization refuses services to children or prospective parents on religious grounds, they will be required to refer the child or parent to a different organization.

It was a controversial bill. LGBT groups said it “used religion as a weapon.” Religious groups said it allowed them to serve children without violating their core beliefs. 

Alabama, Kentucky and South Dakota were also added to the list of states with California travel bans. It’s not immediately clear what the economic impact of the decision will have on Texas.

One of the key consequences could involve higher education — and college sports in particular. Researchers and staff members from universities often travel to Texas for conferences. And California college sports teams play in Texas fairly regularly. Several major sports bowl games and tournaments are played here — including the men’s college basketball Final Four in San Antonio in 2018. The University of California, Los Angeles played a road football game at Texas A&M University last season. The University of California, Berkeley played at the University of Texas at Austin a year earlier. 

The California law allows for exceptions for contracts that are already in place, and it’s unclear whether the state’s teams would be banned from playing in the Final Four. But the Los Angeles Times reported in February that UCLA has stopped scheduling games against teams in banned states. 

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In a year of cuts, the Texas Legislature boosted financial aid for college students

Attempts to freeze tuition may have stalled out at the Texas Legislature this year, but lawmakers did take one quiet step toward addressing college affordability: They gave the state’s biggest financial aid program a boost. 

The austere state budget currently awaiting Republican Gov. Greg Abbott‘s signature includes a 10 percent funding hike for Texas’ main method of helping needy students attend four-year colleges. That money will address the aid program’s biggest shortfall — that there’s not enough money to give grants to everyone who qualifies. Advocates say that’s a much-needed boost as cost of college continues to rise. 

This year, about 15 percent of students who were eligible for a Toward Excellence, Access and Success Grant, or TEXAS Grant, didn’t get one. Next year, state officials say, that share should be cut in half.  

“We will be able to fund about 92 percent of eligible students,” said Raymund Paredes, the state’s higher education commissioner. “We would love to be at 100 percent, but we’ll settle for 92.”

The program was created in 1999 to cover full tuition and fees for the state’s neediest full-time university students. In its first year, it did so for all 6,108. But this decade, the state has had to pull back on its ambitions as tuition has gone up and the number of poor students has increased. 

The Tribune reported this March that more than 66,000 students were receiving the grants in 2015, but the average reward had dwindled to 58 percent of tuition and fees and many students who should have qualified were being left out.

For much of the session, things looked like they might get worse. Powerful lawmakers introduced legislation that would have capped the amount of each grant in order to spread lesser amounts of money around farther. And the original versions of the budget produced by the House and Senate didn’t include any additional funding for the program.

If those plans had gone through, the average award amount would have likely shrunk, and the share of qualified students who would have lost out on the grant was expected to rise from 15 percent to 43 percent by 2019, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The decision to increase funding came near the end of the session. Prior to that point, the Senate had upped its proposed amount by only $45 million, while the House hadn’t called for any significant increase. But during negotiations to iron out differences between the two chambers’ spending plans, lawmakers chose to go above and beyond what either side had proposed. In the end, they added $71 million, bringing the total proposed spending on the program over the next two years to $786 million.  

“With the cost of college skyrocketing for families across the state, there was a strong sentiment in both the House and Senate to provide additional financial aid resources to help individuals seeking to further their education,” said Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, who chairs the House subcommittee focused on education spending. “The decision to increase funding by over $70 million shows the Legislature’s determination not to allow Texas’ most critical resource — our students — to fall behind simply for financial reasons.”

The increase was welcome news for universities and higher education advocates. But some warned that the state needs to go further if it can be expected to meet its goal of 60 percent of its young people earning a postsecondary degree by 2030. Nearly two-thirds of school-aged children in Texas come from low-income families. And the grant doesn’t cover part-time students or other nontraditional students.

“The job is not done when we get to 100 percent of eligible students served,” said Garrett Groves, director of the Educational Opportunity Program at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. 

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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