Late last month, three weeks after becoming chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, Gene Powell selected Rick O’Donnell, a former director of Colorado’s higher education department, to fill a newly created position, that of special adviser to the board.
O’Donnell’s $200,000 annual salary and his hiring, which was not announced publicly, have set off some alarms — among lawmakers grappling with the state’s huge budget shortfall and among higher education observers who fear that the choice represents a precarious new direction for the UT System that could threaten its flagship university’s elite status.
The hire comes just months after the Texas A&M University System was criticized for implementing reforms recommended by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative research group that advocates an approach that departs radically from the traditional research-driven model of academia. A spokeswoman for the organization said their recommendations strive for excellence in both teaching and research while recognizing them as separate endeavors.
"What that fails to recognize," said Dean Neikirk, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the school's Faculty Council, "is that at the truly top universities in this nation, research is not separate from education. Research is education."
In November, Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, an organization comprising the nation’s elite research institutions, urged Chancellor Mike McKinney of Texas A&M to resist such “ill-conceived calls for ‘reform’ ” that “appear to diverge” from the reasons A&M was admitted to the group. He argued that some of the proposals demonstrated “little or no understanding of the nature of graduate education.”
Texas Public Policy Foundation spokesman David Guenthner said, “Anytime you’re making fundamental changes, the people who are part of the current system are naturally nervous and suspicious.”
Before the UT System hired O’Donnell, he was a senior research fellow at the policy foundation, where he wrote a paper, “Is Academic Research a Good Investment for Texas?” The paper concluded that much research “has few tangible benefits.”
In an interview, O’Donnell said that he had no set agenda. “What I bring is an ability to ask questions,” he said, “and an ability to think through tough issues.” He said he would collaborate with two new task forces assembled by Powell to improve educational quality while, at Gov. Rick Perry’s urging, lowering costs.
While it’s too early to tell what tack the system will take, Neikirk said he is concerned. “There are some possibilities,” he said, “that I think would really degrade the quality of UT-Austin.”
As for O’Donnell’s salary, Powell said in an e-mail that the board was “keenly aware” of the financial difficulties facing the system’s universities but expected the investment in O’Donnell to pay off. "In the long run, we expect this investment to result in greater efficiencies and significant savings in our operations," he wrote.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who heads the Senate Higher Education Committee, said she was “shocked and dismayed” by O’Donnell’s salary. She said that, at a time when institutions are being asked to make cuts, such a move “hurts the board’s credibility.”
Another concern, Zaffirini said, is the system’s reporting structure, which “flies in the face of our impressive, established administration within the system.” O’Donnell answers to Powell, not to Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.
The task forces will report their findings in May. Zaffirini said that an “anti-intellectual, anti-academic mind-set” could give Berdahl, a former president of UT, the impression that his concerns were not isolated to one institution.
UT President Bill Powers is more diplomatic. “We are committed to inventing and reinventing what it means to be a great public university,” he said. “We want to make sure that we do it in a way that also advances great public research.”