Much has been made about higher education reformer Rick O'Donnell's opinions on academic research. In February, O'Donnell was hired as a special adviser to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Lawmakers and alumni were quick to cry foul, their worries stoked by papers O'Donnell had written for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, that questioned the value of academic research and other aspects of the higher ed status quo.
On March 24, the system responded to the uproar by reclassifying O'Donnell as a special assistant for research, a position for which funding will run out on Aug. 31. The next day, he penned a letter to new Regent Wallace Hall elaborating on his background and his beliefs.
The letter, which was inspired by Hall's curiosity about the news coverage regarding O'Donnell's hiring, has since been circulated among the regents and officials of the system. In it, O'Donnell says the white papers in question "represent not only a small slice of life but a slice from an environment designed to stimulate dialogue and encourage debate." He says that he knew the papers would be controversial when he wrote them because they were written to provoke debate.
O'Donnell also points out that the words and deeds in his professional career (as opposed to his role as senior fellow at TPPF, which he notes was "an unremunerated honorific post") "clearly reflect [his] positive views about the role of research in the university and the role of the research university in higher education in America." However, he says he also recognizes that change is on the way as the public increasingly demands that institutions justify the allocation of taxpayer funds.
In addition to supporting research, he says, "I also am unafraid to look at the data, ask hard questions around productivity, cost-benefits and accountability because I think it is possible to measure the value of research to our common weal."
Here is a copy of O'Donnell's entire letter: