Rick O'Donnell, the controversial higher education reformer whose hiring by the University of Texas System Board of Regents sparked an outcry at the University of Texas at Austin, is no longer employed by the UT System effective immediately, according to system spokesman Anthony de Bruyn.
O'Donnell's position initially drew attention with its $200,000 annual salary at a time when budgets are being slashed at universities across the state. There were questions raised about why his job seemed to closely mirror that of Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. The concern increased as writings O'Donnell did while a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, were scrutinized. In them, he questioned the value of much of the academic research being conducted in the state as well as the current system of accreditation.
In a statement released today, O'Donnell said, "I want to thank the Regents for the opportunity to work the last six weeks on the central question that has driven all my higher education work during my career: trying to discover ever better ways to ensure that as many students as possible have access to the highest quality college education at the most affordable cost."
"My experience in public life," he said, "including as a head of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, has taught me that reform of complex systems is difficult and the forces of the status quo are always strong. While it was not my choice to depart at this time, I am hopeful that the commitment to improving the productivity of the U.T. System will continue for the sake of taxpayers and the sake of students."
De Bruyn declined to comment on whether the move was related to an internal letter written by O'Donnell and obtained by the Tribune that accused university and system officials of suppressing public data.
In a letter written to Regent Wallace Hall on Monday, O'Donnell speculated about why he believes "someone who has been on the job just 49 days, with no decision-making authority" caused such an uproar.
Immediately upon starting his job, O'Donnell wrote, he began asking for public data "that would inform the task force members on how student tuition dollars and taxpayer money were being spent." The release of the data, he alleges, "was resisted at the highest levels" of UT and the UT System.
O'Donnell wrote that rather than release the data to the public, "we were met with what some have called a well-orchestrated public relations campaign of breathless alarms." If any harm has come to UT, he continues, blame cannot be placed at his feet or those of the task force, but should be "laid at the feet of those who have diverted attention to secondary issues and then encouraged the uproar."
"My belief is that these data, which rightfully belong to the public, should be fully released," O'Donnell wrote, "not only so the task force may analyze it but also so the public and outside experts may do so as well."
In a joint statement released today, UT and the UT System responded to allegations that they were suppressing data. "As part of the special task force on productivity and excellence, data on how tuition dollars and taxpayer money are being spent at UT System academic institutions is, indeed, being gathered," the statement said. "The data, which is now in raw, draft format, is being analyzed as part of the task force process." According to the statement, once that data is in its final form, it will be reviewed by the chancellor, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and board executives, then reviewed with each university presidents, after which it will be shared with the entire board.
"The notion that the UT System and UT Austin are purposefully suppressing such data is inaccurate," the statement said. "The UT System and its institutions have been and are committed to being transparent in all of their endeavors."
Though O'Donnell will no longer be at the UT System, pressure to release such data is unlikely to disappear. Justin Keener, a spokesman for the newly formed organization Texas Business for Higher Education released a statement saying, "Our investment of public funds must be transparent and productive; and despite differing opinions on implementing specific improvements, there should be no disagreement on allowing the public to see their government at work."
Here is O'Donnell's letter to Hall. O'Donnell also included a letter from Murphy Smith, an accounting professor at Texas A&M University, expressing support for O'Donnell's efforts at the system. O'Donnell's letter with Smith's attached is below.
UPDATE: After this was posted, Smith sent the following statement clarifying his remarks. He wrote, "First, all the people I know in higher education are working very hard at their jobs, including tenured faculty, non-tenured faculty, administrators, and staff. They all want the best for Texas university students. Second, this addendum and my earlier writings are simply my opinion and do not represent the university where I work. I do firmly believe that all three dimensions of faculty performance are important: teaching, research, and service. While it is true that research may or may not have immediate practical value, I think research is always meaningful because it helps professors better understand current issues in their academic field, and thereby become better teachers. There is research from which practitioners, students, and society can benefit."
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.