By VIMAL PATEL
Top Texas A&M System leaders have repeatedly said the idea for a program that gives teachers cash based on anonymous student evaluations did not come from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin think tank.
“They got it from me,” said Chancellor Mike McKinney, who said in an interview earlier this year that he modeled the program — which has become a symbol of political interference in the university — on a similar one at the University of Oklahoma.
McKinney’s statement regarding the origins of the controversial program is not necessarily untrue, but it doesn’t tell the whole picture.
A similar program to the one at Texas A&M did begin first at the University of Oklahoma. Like at A&M, it gave cash awards of between $2,500 and $10,000 to about 15 percent of the faculty based on anonymous student evaluations.
But the Oklahoma program was pitched by the father of the person who wrote the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “seven breakthrough solutions” to reforming higher education, one of which was the awards program
Jakie Sandefer, an influential Oklahoma football alum and father of Jeff Sandefer, was on the university’s business school board of advisers. The program ran in the business and engineering schools.
“It’s no secret that he introduced the concept here,” said Robert Dauffenbach, a business professor and associate dean for research and graduate programs at Oklahoma.
Lack of funding at OU
Dauffenbach was in charge of implementing the program, which he said was met with some of the same criticisms it would face at Texas A&M, chiefly the value of student evaluations in gauging how effective a teacher is.
The program — called the Alumni Teaching Award there — lasted around four semesters until it had to be nixed. The culprit was a lack of funding, the university’s president, David Boren, said in a statement released through a university spokesman.
Despite major cuts in the A&M System over the last year that have led to several hundred position reductions at just the flagship College Station campus, the program still remains and since its creation in fall 2008 has given out more than $2.7 million.
When the Oklahoma program began, there was no such thing as the “seven breakthrough solutions” from the Texas Public Policy Foundation that have sparked a statewide clash in Texas over the direction of higher education.
They would be neatly packaged and delivered at an Austin meeting in May 2008 attended by Gov. Rick Perry, a supporter of the ideas, in which Jeff Sandefer had an audience of 45 of the state’s university regents, including all nine from the A&M System board.
So it’s possible that the awards program at Texas A&M University — initially called SLATE, or Student Led Awards for Teaching Excellence — was conceived before the Texas Public Policy Foundation formalized its “solutions.”
Regardless, before A&M, before Oklahoma, the idea came from Jeff Sandefer, a Texas Public Policy Foundation board member.
Worry of outside influence
The exact role the Sandefers played with the program at Oklahoma is not known. The deans of the colleges of business and engineering did not respond to messages and a spokesman for the university, Chris Shilling, did not respond to follow-up questions after confirming that the program did exist.
Jakie Sandefer also did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Texas A&M faculty have worried that private individuals are influencing university policy outside the purview of public scrutiny.
Jeff Sandefer, co-founder of the private Acton School of Business, is a major contributor to Perry, who has publicly supported Sandefer’s ideas.
At Texas A&M University, the Sandefers showed a continued interest in the program.
In the days following an Eagle story in October about possible changes to SLATE, Jeff Sandefer wrote a lengthy email to his dad, articulating several concerns he had with the new program. They included lowering the amount of the award and taking the word “excellence” out of its name. Some faculty have called it an “insult” to say student evaluations alone are a gauge of excellence.
The changes, proposed by Texas A&M Provost Karan Watson, trivialize the award and make it “seem more like a tip,” Jeff Sandefer wrote.
Jakie Sandefer concurred, calling those who would do that “goof balls.” He then emailed his good friend, Phil Adams — a Texas Public Policy Foundation board member and A&M regent — and told him that day to give him a call. A few days later, Jakie Sandefer emailed Watson, the provost, to speak about the program.
It’s unclear who exactly did it, but the program changes were vetoed.
A trail not followed
The program at Oklahoma ended in spring 2009. At that time, the program had been introduced at Texas A&M University and two other universities in the A&M System, and would soon be expanded to all of the system’s 11 universities.
Frank Ashley, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the A&M System, said in 2009 that the system was trailblazing in offering a cash award based solely on student evaluations. Nearly three years later, no top system leader could point to another university that has followed A&M’s path.
It has proven deeply unpopular among faculty at Texas A&M University, with about 3 percent participating last fall in the program. Faculty critics say the program is more a popularity contest than a comprehensive gauge of excellence.
Regent Adams, unaware a microphone was on, said during last week’s regents meeting that the board would get rid of SLATE. Board Chairman Richard Box also said regents would revisit the program.
John Edens, a Texas A&M psychology professor, was one of five original signers of a letter seeking clarity from regents about their plans regarding Sandefer’s ideas. The letter eventually drew more than 800 faculty signatures.
In an interview, Edens lamented external influence on the university: “I wonder how Aggies would feel if they knew major policy decisions are being influenced by a Sooner.”