Rick O'Donnell: The Emails

With the exception of the chancellor, most hiring decisions at the University of Texas System go largely unnoticed or, at the very least, provoke little discussion, outside the innermost circles of higher education observers. That has not been the case with regents chairman Gene Powell's decision to hire higher education reformer Rick O'Donnell, who has in a matter of weeks gone from special adviser to the board of regents to special assistant for research to soon-to-be former system employee.

O'Donnell's position initially raised eyebrows with its high-priced annual salary ($200,000) at a time when budgets are being slashed at universities across the state. There were questions raised about why his job seemed to closely mirror that of Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. The concern grew as writings he did while a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, were scrutinized. In them, O'Donnell questioned the value of much of the academic research being conducted in the state as well as the current system of accreditation. Ties to Jeff Sandefer, a TPPF board member and higher education reformer who — with the help of Gov. Rick Perry — has pushed a controversial set of "breakthrough solutions" for higher ed, added a dash of political intrigue that kicked the story into high gear.

O'Donnell now has been reassigned — he now reports to one of the vice chancellors — and it has been announced that his position will end no later than Aug. 31. However, details about his hiring process, his policy positions and his work to support two task forces created by Powell (one on blended and online learning and another on university excellence and productivity) continue to emerge. The Texas Tribune obtained a series of internal system emails detailing how O'Donnell came to be at the UT System and the subsequent attempts to manage the fallout from his appointment. We have annotated the emails to give additional information and context. 

From the exchanges, it is clear that O'Donnell was contacted before the posting for the job went up and was encouraged to apply for the position. It is also clear that Cigarroa was not very involved or informed of the process as it was occurring. Nor were regents vice chairmen Jim Dannenbaum, Paul Foster and Steven Hicks.

The emails reveal that O'Donnell's job seems to have been modeled in part on a similar job at the Texas A&M University System, previously held by former Perry staffer Jay Kimbrough, who received more compensation than O'Donnell (who appears to have taken a pay cut to come to the system). There is also an exchange in which Sandefer, who has previously declined to comment on the matter, is involved in a discussion about one of the task forces.

At one point, the newest regents (Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall and Brenda Pejovich), O'Donnell and Powell plan to meet but consider reducing their numbers out of concern for constituting a quorum, which would require that the meeting be held in public. The nature of the meeting is unknown. And finally — though there's more to be seen — the correspondence provides a sense of where the work of the task forces, members of which recently toured Arizona State University, might be headed.

 
 

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