By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
The firing last week of Rick O’Donnell, a University of Texas System official whose star fell as quickly as it rose, is the latest in a series of developments that, added together, constitute a clear message from the Longhorn faithful to Gov. Rick Perry: Don’t mess too much with UT. Just over three weeks ago, the governor dismissed criticism of O’Donnell and Jeff Sandefer, a Perry donor and adviser on higher education matters, who had upset alumni, donors and others with writings contending that much academic research lacks value and that schools would be better off with fewer tenured faculty members.”That’s an interesting ploy, to make those two guys be the evil ones,” Perry told the American-Statesman at the time. “The fact is that’s a distraction. There’s no there there.”
As it turned out, there was plenty of controversy there. And the dust-up has put the governor into damage control mode, seeking on the one hand to play down the matter and on the other to tout UT-Austin‘s potential to help Austin become, as he puts it, “the next Silicon Valley.”
But it was Perry himself who planted the seeds of controversy. The governor called public university governing boards to a May 2008 summit in Austin where he and Sandefer promoted several “breakthrough solutions,” including separation of research and teaching budgets and bonus pay for instructors based solely on student evaluations. The Texas Public Policy Foundation — Sandefer is a longtime board member and O’Donnell was a senior research fellow for the think tank at the time — helped organize the summit.
The recommendations didn’t sit well with many higher education leaders, but the Texas A&M University System, whose chancellor, Mike McKinney, is a former Perry chief of staff, moved briskly to adopt some of them. In October, the Association of American Universities rebuked McKinney, declaring that such policies ignore quality and complexity.
The UT System Board of Regents, under the leadership of H. Scott Caven Jr., James Huffines and Colleen McHugh, wasn’t so eager to salute the governor. That seemed to change when their terms on the board ended.
Perry let it be known that he wanted Gene Powell to lead the board, and the governor appointed two new regents, Alex Cranberg and Wallace Hall, who have been seen as sympathetic to some of the changes sought by the governor, Sandefer and O’Donnell. Emails indicate that Sandefer and O’Donnell knew the two would be appointed weeks before the governor’s office made a public announcement.
Powell, a San Antonio developer and technology entrepreneur, didn’t waste time putting his stamp on policy.
Like Perry, Powell said costs need to be pruned and productivity increased. Like Perry, he said it might be possible to develop a four-year degree costing no more than $10,000, including tuition and books. And like Perry, he wanted to differentiate research and teaching in terms of costs and revenue. He hired O’Donnell on March 1 to do some of that work.
Soon, voices that rarely utter a cross word about the university or the governor began speaking out.
The Ex-Students’ Association at UT-Austin urged the 206,000 alumni, supporters and others on its email list to contact regents. Current and former leaders of the Chancellor’s Council Executive Committee, including prominent figures in the state’s business and civic life, called on Powell and the other regents to “rise above the politics of the moment” and focus on the mission of research and teaching.
Red McCombs, a prominent UT donor and Republican supporter, told Powell that it was time “to cool the current wave of rhetoric” and that “enlightened supporters of the university know that we must have a healthy balance of research and teaching.”
And last week, Dallas investor, major UT donor and Republican stalwart Peter O’Donnell Jr. — no relation to Rick O’Donnell — warned that some of the changes recommended by Perry and Powell could harm the model of public higher education that relies heavily on philanthropic donations.
“I think the Board of Regents needs to formally adopt a policy that recognizes the importance of university research, to let people know what they’re for and what they’re not for,” O’Donnell said.
Kenneth Ashworth, author of “Horns of a Dilemma: Coping with Politics at the University of Texas” and a former Texas commissioner of higher education, said, “Sometimes regents think they need to protect the university against political intrusion. In this case, the regents are interjecting political interference into the administration of the university. People who are concerned about the university and love the institution are looking carefully at policies that could be detrimental or harmful to the institution they either graduated from or support.”
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the governor, said he “appreciates everyone’s interest” in the higher education discussion.
“Gov. Perry has continued to make higher education a priority, and this session, has challenged institutions of higher education to develop a degree that costs no more than $10,000 including textbooks, and called on them to develop a plan to offer veterans college credit for the knowledge and skills they developed in the military,” Nashed said in a statement.
“Also, to help Texas families plan for the cost of higher education, he has renewed his call for a four-year tuition freeze, locking in a student’s freshman year tuition rate for four years. Additionally, because taxpayers deserve to see more results than just enrollment numbers, the governor has also asked the Legislature to explore outcomes-based funding, which would tie some state funding to university graduation rates, rather than just enrollment,” she said.
Perry has also sought to redirect the discussion by focusing on prospects for Central Texas to become a major high-tech hub and bringing UT officials and industry leaders together last week to discuss the matter.
As for Rick O’Donnell, he came to the UT System after a stint working for Sandefer’s charitable foundations, whose beneficiaries include the Acton School of Business, a small business school that Sandefer co-founded in Austin. O’Donnell previously was executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U.S. House in that state.
He was fired by the UT System on Tuesday after writing a letter in which he accused unnamed officials at the “highest levels” of the system and the Austin campus of suppressing the release of data on faculty costs and revenue to regents, two task forces advising the regents and the public. The system and campus said in a joint statement that the data are in a draft format and will eventually be shared with the Board of Regents. But the statement didn’t specifically say whether the data would be released publicly.
Asked about O’Donnell’s dismissal, Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry, said, “This was a university decision, and I’d refer you to them to talk about personnel issues.”
Anthony de Bruyn, a UT System spokesman, said only that O’Donnell’s services “were no longer needed.”
A recently formed group of more than two dozen business executives quickly weighed in, urging regents to ask tough questions and to pursue cost savings and greater access to higher education.
Justin Keener, a spokesman for Texas Business for Higher Education, said, “What this group cares about is not so much the staff involved in helping the regents ask the questions and gather information, but are those questions being asked and is information being shared freely and are we doing everything we can to continue to find ways to improve our great universities?”
Retired U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Dallas, also has entered the fray.
Armey, who described the faculty senate as “an imbecile institution” when he spoke at Perry’s 2008 summit, is circulating a petition that calls on UT and A&M regents to adopt greater transparency in spending and “results-based evaluations” of teachers and students.
Armey , now chairman of Washington-based FreedomWorks, wrote that too many UT and A&M professors are “content to rest on their laurels. This ruling elite of academics is focused on doing less, but making more, all the while ignoring the needs of students and caring nothing for the cost born by the taxpayers.”
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