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UT System Regent's Request Stirs More Controversy

After a public display of harmony last week, controversy continues to surround UT System Board of Regents. Does a request made by regent Alex Cranberg amount to the kind of micromanaging criticized by the system's chancellor? Cranberg insists it is no such thing.

UT System Regent Alex M. Cranberg listens to a speech before the Board by Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa on May 12, 2011.

After a public display of harmony last week, confusion and controversy continues to surround the University of Texas System Board of Regents. To some, a recent request made by regent Alex Cranberg amounts to the kind of micromanaging recently criticized by the system's chancellor, but Cranberg and others insist it is no such thing.

In anticipation of today's meeting of the board's task force on university excellence and productivity, which is chaired by regent Brenda Pejovich and of which Cranberg is a member, the two have been conducting a significant amount of data analysis regarding professor productivity. To augment his analysis, Cranberg requested a timeline for when data on weighted average student evaluations for each course, weighted average grades for each course, and faculty workloads would be made available.

Cranberg, who sought the information as an individual regent as opposed to a member of the task force, explained to the Tribune in an email that his request is a follow-up to one made by Pejovich before the creation of the task force. Additionally, some data relating to professor productivity has already been released in draft form. "As you know," Cranberg wrote, "the data provided previously has a 'do not use or interpret' warning label on it. I asked, 'When can we take this label off?'"

He also said he hoped to gather information to better understand the regents' rules regarding faculty workloads, which he said Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa has requested they look into. Cranberg wrote, "I feel that it is relevant to have our existing data base include the information which pertains to this request to facilitate more informed decision-making on this Regent's Rule. I never want to be in a position to have to vote on an item that I do not understand."

But to some university officials, this amounts to the type of behavior Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa spoke against last week when he said, "Our universities cannot be micromanaged.” He said, “I trust our presidents, and I will hold them and I will hold myself accountable.”

Senate Higher Education Chairwoman and co-chair of the recently created Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is among those who believe this request falls into the micromanagement category. "Some of the new regents seem suspicious and cynical about our institutions and are having a very negative impact on morale," she told the Tribune in an email, expressing concern that this behavior could ward off the "best and brightest" professors and students.

Zaffirini said that regents need to know their roles. "They are not the CEOs, nor should each one feel free to bombard our educations with expensive, time-consuming data-gathering."

Since the ongoing debate about the direction of Texas' universities heated up two months ago, university and system staffs have been tasked with a mounting list of open records requests — including extensive requests from Zaffirini.

"There is no comparison between this request and mine," Zaffirini said. "My request focused on copies of materials submitted to the media and about heavy-handed micromanaging."

Cranberg contends, as has regents chairman Gene Powell, that simply gathering information does not constitute micromanaging. "There is obviously a big difference between asking for data that any non-Regent citizen can ask for under the FOIA, and using that data to micro-manage," Cranberg told the Tribune, which he cited as an example. "Texas Tribune has asked for lots of information from me under FOIA," he wrote. "I am forthcoming without complaint because I appreciate the importance of transparency and data to drive understanding."

Universities were originally told they had to provide their timelines by Tuesday — before today's task force meeting. However, after confusion over whether the request was coming from Cranberg or the task force, it was agreed that the deadline would be pushed back until task force members could discuss the matter with Cranberg. 

He said he's not necessarily surprised his request has drawn such attention. "Nothing surprises me anymore about the motivations and caricatures that I sometimes read or hear about," he wrote. "The very good news is that a lot of good people care very deeply about the University and its future. It is an institution which is well worth all the attention and devotion it attracts. We must all use this opportunity to know more and not less about these great campuses."

Meanwhile, the tension surrounding the Board of Regents also continues. "Last week's resounding vote of confidence in Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa
gave me hope that we had turned the corner," Zaffirini said. "Obviously, we have a long way to go."

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Higher education Judith Zaffirini