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Controversial UT Regent: Let's Push Reset Button

Of the new University of Texas System regents, none has received more scrutiny than Alex Cranberg. After months of controversy, he said the time has come to “push a reset button” on the relationship between the regents and the leadership at UT.

Regent Alex M. Cranberg at the University of Texas Board of Regents meeting on May 12, 2011.

On Feb. 12, Gene Powell, the chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, sent a note to Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT System, about the newest regents appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. The new members “all have extensive experience in higher education and all of them are hard core conservatives. And none of them are shy. We will see no ‘break in’ period from these individuals,” he wrote.

It was an early hint of the changes afoot at the UT board and the tense months — some of the most tumultuous in institutional memory, with the regents seemingly pitted against the flagship university in a highly public spat — that lay ahead. Of that new crop of board members, none have received more scrutiny than Alex Cranberg.

Sitting in the student center at the UT campus in Austin in early June, Cranberg, the 56-year-old chairman of Aspect Holdings, a lucrative energy company based in Denver, said the time had come to “push a reset button” on the relationship between the regents and the leadership of the university.

Individuals who encountered Cranberg as an undergraduate student at UT — he received a degree in petroleum engineering in 1977 — remember him as a spirited debater who enjoyed challenging others and being challenged in return.

And it may not be what he expected, but he has certainly been challenged lately.

Suspicion has surrounded Cranberg from day one. First, there was the speed with which he became a regent — one of the most prestigious appointments a governor can bestow upon a Texan. Cranberg received the nod just two weeks after registering to vote in the state following a move from Colorado for personal reasons.

“Frankly, I’ve got a lot going on and would not have moved specifically for this job,” he said.

Then there were his associations. Cranberg is a longtime friend of Jeff Sandefer, the Austin energy investor who wrote a controversial set of seven proposals for changing higher education and has promoted them with Perry’s aid. “I don’t expect anybody to tell me what to do and have me do it,” Cranberg said.

Of all the regents, Cranberg was the one closest to Rick O’Donnell, a fellow former Coloradoan — and an associate of Sandefer — who had publicly questioned the value of academic research. The UT System’s hiring of O’Donnell as a special adviser to the board was one of the sparks that lit the state- wide controversy. (O’Donnell’s employment was terminated after 49 days, during which he was “unfairly attacked,” Cranberg said.)

At the height of the debate, Cranberg was widely considered by critics in the Legislature and the academic community to be the ringleader of a bloc of regents who were influenced by Sandefer and others aiming to, among other things, stage an attack on academic research and coordinate an ouster of UT’s president, Bill Powers. Most recently, after a request for extensive data on all the faculty members in the system, Cranberg was accused by the same groups of trying to micromanage the universities.

“If I read some of the stuff about me that I read in the paper, I’d be against me,” said Cranberg, who denied all the details of what he called a “caricature.”

When Cranberg heard that his data request was overwhelming the small staff at the University of Texas-Pan American, he asked the university’s president, Robert Nelsen, to write a grant proposal for him to personally finance. “It surprised me very much,” Nelsen said. “It was a very generous offer on his part.”

When asked if other universities shared concerns publicly expressed by many in Austin about the data, Nelsen said: “I know my faculty are concerned and my staff are concerned. We’re not worried, but we would like a better idea of what the data will be used for.”

Cranberg said that his grant offer, which ultimately was not accepted, was as symbolic as it was sincere. “I want to show that I’m willing to share the sacrifice,” he said. “I expect it to be symbolically understood that I’m not asking for stuff out of some arrogant desire to be given whatever I want.”

Cranberg has a long history of investing in causes he cares about. In Colorado, when a school voucher initiative he backed failed, he joined with others to create the Alliance for Choice in Education, a nonprofit group that provides scholarships to schoolchildren. An advocate of expanding pathways to citizenship for immigrants, Cranberg paid $10,000 to conduct a poll in his Colorado district just to confirm his belief that he was not an anomaly in the Republican Party.

“I’ve got two kinds of energy,” he said. “I’ve got my own personal energy inside my body, and I’ve got this stored energy that’s called financial resources or cash. I intend to use both up as fully as humanly possible by the time I die.”

Cranberg, the son of a prominent physicist, grew up in the world of academia, which he said influenced him greatly, as did work toward an MBA from Stanford University. His stint on the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan State College of Denver, from 2002 to 2007, informs much of his behavior as a regent.

“I saw some things there that I wish I’d done differently, and I don’t like to ever look back on something I did and wish I’d done things better,” he said.

On the Denver board, he said, he learned of the “critical importance” of data, especially granular information that one can “slice and dice” different ways.

“That’s not micromanagement,” he said. “That’s just good analysis.”

His requests for data are not likely to subside, despite the complaints. He said he intended to ask for detailed data on faculty peer reviews. He anticipates that the request could be “burdensome,” but also informative.

Of a controversial, widely publicized study by Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, which used unverified data to allege that UT functions inefficiently, Cranberg called the analysis “simplistic.”

Still, while the criticisms of the report resonate with him, so do Vedder’s concerns. Cranberg said he hoped to “win the hearts and minds” of those who still had reservations about his intentions as he sought to address those concerns. That the Legislature created a new higher education oversight committee in response to the continuing controversy might indicate that he has a long way to go.

Cranberg said he welcomed the new oversight committee, which some conservative bloggers have strongly criticized, and said he believed that most of its members were aligned with his vision.

“I’m the one that’s been arguing for transparency,” he said, “so why should I argue about going before some legislative committee?”

The most important issue moving forward, Cranberg said, is which groups will rally together “post reset” to embrace the changes that he believes must happen. He added, though, that he and his fellow regents would not relinquish their responsibilities “just because they’re being critical, especially if they’re being critical of something we don’t even recognize as our position.”

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