Rick O'Donnell

“Excellent meeting with Rick. Are you ready to get this show on the road?” asked Francie Frederick in a private e-mail to Gene Powell, Chairman of the Board of the UT System.

“Next stop would be to craft a short job description and for you to give me the target salary range.” They chose a man; they only needed to create a job for him.

Rick O’Donnell, the former director of Colorado’s Department of Higher Education, was the person the regents wanted. Francie Frederick, head of the General Counsel to the UT System Board of Regents, was the connection.

According to e-mails published by the Texas Tribune, Frederick started to outline a new job opening alongside Chairman Gene Powell the day after she met with O’Donnell. Three days later they posted a new position as available.

They received eight applications, while H.R. e-mails flew, “the reason for non-hire on the applicants not selected look good.” While another said, “Please put that the successful candidate had more experience in working with higher education issues.”

The job was tailored for O’Donnell and modeled after a position recently created in Texas A&M for Jim Kimbrough, former chief of staff to Gov. Perry, which aimed to reform the A&M System. Now was the time for U.T. “I have quietly checked with A&M and when Jay was there before he was at $260k. He is coming back at over $300k in June,” wrote Powell.

The newcomer at UT, O’Donnell, didn’t have as much luck in Austin as his counterpart in College Station. Observers believe that the inclusion of O’Donnell into the highest chamber of the UT system was orchestrated by Perry’s supporters to implement a new agenda, based on the ideas of wealthy entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer, the author of a polemic document called the “7 Breakthrough Solutions,” which targets higher education.

Sandefer proposes a budgetary rapture between teaching and research, a heavier impact of students’ teacher evaluation, required evidence of teaching skills for tenure, and the creation of a result-based teaching environment. Sandefer is part of the conservative think tank, Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), as is the newly appointed O’Donnell and the governor’s strongman on College Station, Kimbrough.

With O’Donnell earning $200,000 and with a position that answered directly to the Board of Regents instead as to the Chancellor, many believed Perry had successfully triggered an impending attack on the autonomy of the UT System. The expectancy was short lived, his chain of command was changed to ultimately respond to the Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, and O’Donnell was fired 49 days after taking office, amidst controversies of academic plagiarism and political conflicts between the board members.

The reason for his termination, he told the Texas Tribune, was because he denounced “that people in the highest levels of the university, not just once or twice, had consistently tried to resist to provide the public with data that the regents needed to do the job.” O’Donnell refers to university’s expenses and in particular how cost-effective certain teachers are. It was data to rethink the real value of research and teaching. He threatened to sue the university on grounds of violation of his First Amendment right, before eventually settling for $70,000.

On the other hand, Perry’s supporters at Texas A&M embraced Jim Kimbrough, but his measures didn’t take long to backlash.

“The Association of American Universities does not, as a general rule, comment on the structure of governance or the processes its member institutions employ,” began an emphatic letter written by Robert M. Berdahl, former president of U.T. Austin, now president of the AAU, addressed to Michael D. McKinney, who was then Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System in March, after part of the Sandefer reforms were implemented.

It continues, “Recent proposals that have been advanced by the TPPF, and apparently supported by some regents and Governor Perry, appear to diverge from [our] mission statement.”

AAU, considered by many the gatekeeper to Tier One status, condemned concrete aspects of the “7 Breakthrough Solutions, ” as follows, “The document demonstrates little or no understanding of the nature of good education, particularly in its question of the value of doctoral education. […] to assume that the sole or even the primary metric of evaluation is ‘customer satisfaction’ surveys is to vastly oversimplify the complex components of good teaching.”

The AAU also sent a copy of the letter to the UT Chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa. “We trust that you will resist these ill-conceived calls for ‘reform,'” ends the letter.

The UT System dodged the bullet, but critical observers such as Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) think this is only the beginning. “This is a four to six-year issue,” she told the Texas Tribune. The nine regents that constitute the board are appointed for six years by the governor.

The most recent appointees were regent Wallace Hall, who contributed more than $14,000 for Perry’s 2010 re-election campaign; Regent Alex Cranberg, a Colorado oilman and an active philanthropist, and the TPPF board member Brenda Pejovich, who donated $32,500 last year to the governor’s re-election effort.

On February 2013, the terms of three more regents, James Dannenbaum, Printice Gary and Paul Foster, will end. This will give the governor the chance to select three more regents apart from those that he has already appointed in the nine-seat board.

If they are approved by the senate, stakeholders of the UT system might be unable to heed the call made by the former President of UT Austin, Robert M. Berdahl. UT can only resist for so long “those ill-conceived calls for ‘reform.'”

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