In response to widespread criticism of its hiring of Rick O'Donnell, a proponent of controversial higher education reforms, as a special adviser to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, the system's leadership has decided to move him into a new position that will exist for only a matter of months.
O'Donnell, the former executive director of Colorado's department of higher education, will now serve as special assistant for research. Instead of reporting directly to Regents Chairman Gene Powell, he will report to Executive Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Scott Kelley and serve at the pleasure of UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. O'Donnell will keep his $200,000 annual salary but the funding for the position will run out on Aug. 31 — the end of the system's current fiscal year — and not be renewed, according to Anthony de Bruyn, a spokesman for the UT System. O'Donnell is not expected to remain with the system beyond that date.
Shortly after joining the system, O'Donnell told the Tribune that he did not have an agenda but would facilitate discussion and conversation about improving educational quality while lowering costs. Still, his public writings questioning the value of academic research, his ties to a group that advocates for a controversial set of "breakthrough solutions" to higher education that were championed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2008, and the perceived direction it could lead the board caused widespread concern among some lawmakers, UT officials and alumni. One prominent UT alumnus wrote an open letter warning of a risk of "serious, long-term, perhaps irreversible degradation in academic stature."
In addition to O'Donnell's personal position on academic research, lawmakers — who invested millions of dollars in bolstering academic research at Texas universities last session — questioned the job description and reporting structure, which seemed to closely mirror that of Cigarroa. At a time when the institutions of higher education, like every state agency and program, are cutting back in response to the state's budget crisis, O'Donnell's salary also raised concerns.
After hearing from a wide variety of distressed constituents, Powell and Cigarroa conducted a review of the position, the results of which went into effect today. "They're listening, and this is the result," said de Bruyn, who also said Powell and Cigarroa believe the reclassification of the position and realignment of the reporting structure will "better serve the interests of the UT System."
In his newly defined role, O'Donnell will provide staff support for two special advisory committees recently announced by the board. Kelley will be the senior system representative to the special advisory task force on university excellence and productivity chaired by Regent Brenda Pejovich. Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs David Prior will be the senior representative to the task force on blended and online learning chaired by Regent Wallace Hall. Cigarroa will continue to serve on both special advisory committees as an ex-officio member.