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UT System Reassigns O'Donnell: "We're Listening"

Top officials at the University of Texas System said in an interview Wednesday that they are moving quickly to allay the concerns regarding the direction of UT, starting with the reassignment of Rick O'Donnell.

Gene Powell and Francisco Cigarroa

Top officials at the University of Texas System — Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell — said in an interview with The Texas Tribune today that they are moving quickly to allay the concerns of lawmakers, alumni and others regarding the direction and standing of UT, starting with the reassignment of a newly hired adviser to the Board of Regents.

Powell said that, contrary to recent speculation, the UT System "unequivocally" supports academic research, and said concerns that the views of recent hire Rick O'Donnell might change that "are absolutely incorrect." In fact, they're moving O'Donnell — who previously worked for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that espouses controversial higher ed reforms — to a different spot on the UT System's organization chart. He was hired to report directly to the regents, but now he'll work for the chancellor instead.

"We're listening," Powell said. "We're definitely listening to what our constituents and our friends and partners in the Legislature are telling us."

An example of what they've been hearing is a letter from state Rep. Dee Margo, R-El Paso, responding to Powell's assertion that while University of Texas at Austin offered "great Cadillac" degrees, other institutions were delivering "very good Olds 98s and Buick LeSabres." On March 10, Margo fired off a letter to Powell saying, "I find it unacceptable for you to refer to non-flagship universities in the UT System as anything less than your flagship campus in Austin."

Six days later, Powell told the Tribune that, if he could turn back the clock, he would not make the same characterization. "We've sworn off metaphors in my house," he said.

Margo told the Tribune that, after a civil meeting with Powell, he takes the chairman at his word that he merely bungled his wordplay.

But it wasn't just Powell's literary license that put him in hot water. Much of the concern grew in the wake of Powell's hiring O'Donnell, a higher education reform advocate with a history of questioning the value of academic research, for a newly created advisory position that reported directly to him.

Powell said that, because he was not looking for somebody to do policy work, he said he did not give O'Donnell's policy positions much consideration. Despite his new-found aversion to metaphors, Powell offered the comparison that O'Donnell's position is to the regents what a data-gathering graduate assistant's might be to a professor. Therefore, he said the backlash against O'Donnell's writings — like a paper written for the TPPF finding that academic research has "few tangible benefits" — was unforeseen.

"But I respect it, and I understand it fully," Powell said. "If I were in their position, I might have the same concerns."

Not only did O'Donnell's philosophy set some on edge, but there was speculation that his hiring was a deliberate move to cut out Cigarroa.

Not so, said Powell, who, like Cigarroa, is from San Antonio. "The board of regents and the chairman have every faith in the chancellor," he said, "and we are very proud of the work that he does, and we are depending on him to lead this system forward."  Powell added that he believes that the System's presidents are "15 of the finest educators in America."

Moving forward, O'Donnell will serve under Cigarroa. Powell said he has asked Cigarroa to review "how we structure the use of O'Donnell in [Cigarroa's] system under him."

In the coming days, Cigarroa indicated he expects to have recommendations on the new organizational structure. He said he will make additional recommendations regarding "how to make certain that the chancellor's office is directly involved in every matter," as well as assuring that presidents, provosts and other academicians have "ample input."   

Asked if he would have hired O'Donnell, Cigarroa said, "If you left it to me individually, I probably would have taken a different track. I certainly would have gotten a lot of input."

However, Cigarroa said he is "absolutely" comfortable that it will work out. He said he's discovered one reason why physicians like himself make for good chancellors: "We've taken the Hippocratic Oath, which is, 'First, do no harm.'"

As for speculation that the board of regents under Powell was doing the bidding of Gov. Rick Perry, who appoints the regents, or forces like the TPPF, Powell asserted his independence: "I am in charge of my decisions absolutely and 100 percent." The interests he seeks to serve, he said, are those of the students.

The Texas A&M University System recently irked professors and high-powered guardians of academia by compiling and publishing a report that showed which professors were generating revenue for the university and which weren't, determined by calculating the tuition and research dollars they brought in and subtracting their salary. Those judged net minuses, financially, were depicted in red.

"There's no intent by this board to produce the red and black report that A&M produced," Powell said. He added that the chancellor and the regents are constantly examining costs across the board.

"I’ve never been interested in replicating what others have done," Cigarroa said, who noted that whatever measures they take toward improving accountability and productivity will have to be consistent with the constitutional mandate that they maintain a "university of the first class."

Two task forces assembled by Powell — one on “university excellence and productivity” and another on "blended and online learning" — will continue to work toward that end. While some have questioned the May deadline for their findings, Powell said he was trying to align their work with the legislative session. He said it will be great if they come back with solid proposals in May, but that if they don't, he will ask them to continue through the summer and produce a full report in the fall.

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