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Lawmakers' Concerns Linger After Changes at UT System

After running a gantlet of concerned legislators, Gene Powell, the chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, took steps last week to assuage concerns over his direction of the system.

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After running a gantlet of concerned, even angry legislators, Gene Powell, the chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents since February, took steps last week to assuage concerns that he was leading the system toward what one prominent University of Texas at Austin alumnus called in an open letter “degradation.”

Powell had created a new $200,000-a-year advisory position with a job description close to that of Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. He quickly filled it with Rick O’Donnell, a controversial advocate of changes in higher education.

O’Donnell’s public writings, which question the value of academic research, did not win him favor in the halls of academia or in the Capitol. That he was to report directly to Powell and to be involved with task forces created by Powell to find strategies to improve educational quality and to lower costs by May — by some estimations a short amount of time to reach anything other than a preordained conclusion — only increased the hand-wringing.

Before Powell’s visit to the Capitol, the Senate Higher Education Committee staff prepared an internal memo, obtained by The Texas Tribune, for the chairwoman, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. It analyzed papers O’Donnell had written on higher education as a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative research group. The committee staff said it was “not sure if O’Donnell is confused ... or if the intent is to deceive.”

Late last week, in an interview with the Tribune, Powell reasserted his support for Cigarroa and announced he was reassigning O’Donnell, who will now serve under the chancellor. The particulars of the arrangement are still being drafted.

Powell also said in the interview that he supports academic research and clarified that O’Donnell’s intended role was never to influence policy, and so his personal views toward research were not considered. He also said the task forces could have until the fall.

Zaffirini said she remained concerned but called Powell’s move a “wonderful, positive, meaningful, immediate action.”

Lawmakers’ complaints are not limited to O’Donnell’s philosophy. Following a much-discussed assertion that there was nothing wrong with a basic Chevrolet Bel-Air-style education, Powell compared undergraduate degrees offered by some of the universities in the UT system to “very good Olds 98s and Buick LeSabres” as opposed to the “Cadillac” degree offered by the flagship school in Austin. In a letter to Powell, state Rep. Dee Margo, R-El Paso, called the comments “unacceptable.”

“We’ve sworn off metaphors at my house,” a regretful Powell said later.

“The first rule of politics is that perception is reality,” said state Representative Dan Branch, Republican of Dallas and chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “I think that’s particularly true of some of the turbulence we’ve seen in the last few weeks with the U.T. regents.”

Branch said he worried that the recent commotion might hurt his higher education reform agenda, which includes efforts to improve universities' efficiency and productivity. But, he said he preferred a “thoughtful, careful, mature, nuanced approach” rather than one that is “overly simplistic or clumsy or wooden.”

Cigarroa said he would have taken a different tack from the outset. “I certainly would have gotten a lot of input,” he said.

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Higher education Politics Judith Zaffirini