By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
At the height of a controversy about the direction of the school’s governing board earlier this year, the chairman of the University of Texas System regents told a fellow regent that he felt as winded as he did during football practices decades ago under coach Darrell Royal.
“Reminds me of two-a-days in Austin in August — you never seem to catch your breath and when you do it feels like steam!” Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, said in an email to Regent Robert Stillwell in March.
That email and hundreds more that circulated among regents and others involved in the controversy were obtained from the UT System by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act.
The messages convey frustration on the part of some regents that they were being criticized as anti-research, as well as an intense interest among regents in gathering data from the system’s campuses on online class offerings, teacher evaluations and other matters. When those data were eventually released publicly, the system said the information was “raw” and “cannot yield accurate analysis, interpretations or conclusions.”
The emails also show that three prominent supporters of higher education wrote a strongly worded letter to Powell urging the regents to make “meaningful statements” regarding the importance of fundamental and applied research, the benefit of the dual mission of teaching and research, and the value of tenured faculty members.
Such statements are essential to address “the perception that actions are being taken that would hurt UT System schools, in particular UT-Austin,” said the letter April 1 from Kenny Jastrow, former CEO of Temple-Inland Inc. and chairman of the university’s ongoing $3 billion capital campaign; Charles Tate, a member of the University of Texas Investment Management Co.’s board; and Pam Willeford, a former chairwoman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and a former ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The UT System is seeking approval from state Attorney General Greg Abbott for its decision to withhold an unknown number of emails and to black out portions of some that it released to the Statesman.
The Statesman will argue that the information should be made public, said Editor Fred Zipp.
The emails give a flavor of Powell’s reaction to criticism from some lawmakers, alumni and others for his hiring of a $200,000-a-year special adviser who had written that much academic research lacks value. Powell also drew criticism for suggesting in an interview with the Statesman that it might be possible to offer cut-rate degrees that he styled as Bel Air quality, a reference to a mid-level Chevrolet of a generation ago.
“I promise everyone I will be much more careful with my metaphors in the future!!!!” Powell said in a March 9 email to various UT System officials.
The adviser, Rick O’Donnell, was dismissed April 19 after accusing top UT System and UT-Austin officials of suppressing information on faculty members’ productivity. O’Donnell and the system reached a settlement Friday under which he agreed not to sue the system in exchange for $70,000 and a glowing letter about his work from Powell.
In a March 14 email to O’Donnell, Powell said the “loyal opposition” is “telling anyone that will listen that you will be making policy and you have been hired to fire the Chancellor, fire the president of UT Austin and to take over the System.” Read more…