But any peace the UT System obtained with its money and a glowing letter from the chairman of the Board of Regents about the former employee’s work and integrity didn’t last long.
Rick O’Donnell, who was dismissed April 19 after seven weeks on the job, lashed out within hours of the settlement’s release at UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who leads the Higher Education Committee.
In an interview with the American-Statesman, O’Donnell said Cigarroa and Powers ginned up opposition among donors, alumni and faculty members to efforts by O’Donnell, regents Chairman Gene Powell and other regents to obtain faculty productivity data.
He said Zaffirini has been carrying water for university administrators instead of letting regents govern the institution.
O’Donnell also charged that Cigarroa, Powers and Zaffirini mounted “a brutal campaign” to demonize the regents who have been active in pursuing faculty data, including Powell, Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall and Brenda Pejovich. And he said Powers begged him and Powell not to collect the data.
Moreover, O’Donnell said his understanding and expectation from conversations and emails with Powell and Francie Frederick, general counsel to the regents, was that he had been hired for the long term.
Barry Burgdorf, vice chancellor and general counsel for the UT System, said no assurances or promises of continuing employment were given to O’Donnell. System officials declined to address O’Donnell’s comments about Cigarroa.
Powers said, “I am not in a position now to comment on his comments in the press.”
Zaffirini said, “Clearly, he doesn’t know me or understand the principles by which I operate.”
O’Donnell, a former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, was fired from his $200,000-a-year job with the UT System after writing a letter accusing officials at the “highest levels” of the system and its Austin flagship of suppressing data showing that a growing sum of tuition and taxpayer money is paid to professors and administrators who do little teaching.
The data were later released publicly in response to open records requests, with UT System and campus officials arguing that the figures on faculty salaries, teaching loads and other matters are not only raw and unverified but also give no insight into the quality and impact of professors’ work.
O’Donnell became a focus of controversy shortly after Powell, without consulting other regents, hired him March 1. Critics cited his previously published policy papers that criticized much academic research as lacking value and that recommended reducing such “wasteful spending” and returning universities to the “rightful mission of teaching.”
Within about three weeks of his hiring, O’Donnell was reassigned as a special assistant for research and told that his job would end by Aug. 31. His hold on employment got even shakier when the UT System announced that it was investigating errors in one of his published articles.
It’s unusual for the UT System to award money to people it has dismissed. In O’Donnell’s case, a settlement made economic sense, Burgdorf said.
“It was very clear that he was going to sue the UT System, and he had the backing to do it,” Burgdorf said. “It would have cost me a lot more to defend that lawsuit and get it dismissed than we ended up paying.”
The letter from Powell to O’Donnell, which is part of the settlement, was negotiated, Burgdorf said. “The chairman would not have signed it had he not believed what was in it,” Burgdorf said.
In the letter, Powell praised O’Donnell’s work as “excellent by all measures and done with integrity.” Powell noted “how sorry I am for the unfortunate controversies that surrounded your original appointment and subsequent work for the System” and said the controversies were “not of your making.”
Regent Steve Hicks, vice chairman of the UT board, said the settlement agreement was not submitted to the board for a vote. Such a vote is not required.
Asked whether he supports the settlement, Hicks replied, “I don’t have an opinion on that. The settlement speaks for itself.”
O’Donnell said the settlement tells prospective employers that he was not fired for performance issues.
“Not even universities can fire people for free speech and civil rights and speaking out,” O’Donnell said.
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