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Rick O'Donnell: The TT Interview

The controversial former adviser at the University of Texas System on his termination, the subsequent settlement, his critics and why he thinks his side is winning the battle over higher ed reform.

Rick O'Donnell

Rick O'Donnell's time as an adviser at the University of Texas System may have been brief, but his presence was felt more than many longtime staffers.

Controversy surrounded O'Donnell, the former director of Colorado's department of higher education, from the day he was hired by Gene Powell, the chairman of the UT System Board of Regents. There were questions about the creation of a new $200,000-a-year position during a time of belt-tightening in higher education. Some viewed his role as undermining UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and threatening University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers. And his abrupt dismissal in April after 49 days on the job resulted in a messy dispute with the UT System, which was settled this week with the agreement to pay O'Donnell $70,o00 and provide a letter from Powell clarifying that he was not terminated for any performance issues.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Tribune, O'Donnell says his intention was to be a part of addressing the "tidal wave of issues" approaching higher education, from rising tuition costs to disruptive technologies. He spoke at length on what he says were the real reasons for the controversy over his position, what lead to his sudden departure, and what he will do next. Not only is he not going anywhere, he says, he thinks he won the first battle.

  • On his ties to his former boss Jeff Sandefer, an Austin businessman, ally of Gov. Rick Perry, and the author of a controversial set of "seven breakthrough solutions" for higher education that Perry has encouraged university systems to implement: "I have my own thoughts about where higher ed needs to go," O'Donnell says.
  • On the scrutiny of a paper he wrote for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank of which Sandefer is a board member, questioning the value of academic research, he said, "I think the research issue was thrown up as a red herring''.
  • On the errors later found in that paper, which led to an investigation by the System, O'Donnell says they were the result of a "production snafu" when TPPF staffer merged multiple drafts of the document. TPPF has accepted responsibility.
  • On the topic of university leadership, he added that universities need to decide if they want to go the way of IBM or General Motors. As for undermining Cigarroa, he says, "That was not my intention, nor do I think it was the intention of these regents."
  • On Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, one of this most vocal critics, he says, "She's been co-opted by the university. She's more interested in defending administrators."
  • Regarding what the debate is really about, he said, "It's not really about me. It's about: Do the regents have the right and even the responsibility to govern their own institution?"

O'Donnell's depature has not quieted the controversy. Zaffirini, who is now a co-chair of a newly created Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, says, "I don't understand the rationale for this settlement, especially because of the circumstances under which O'Donnell was hired questionably and fired justifiably. What's more, it has stirred the controversy anew, with the fire being fueled by O'Donnell." She described the settlement and the writing of the letter as "another major misstep" by Powell.

To O'Donnell's charge that she has been "co-opted", Zaffirini said, "Clearly, Rick O'Donnell doesn't understand  the legislature's authority or responsibility and continues to reflect disrespect and suspicion, if not hatred, for UT."

O'Donnell acknowledges that things will likely remain heated, saying, "It's not all about 'Kumbaya.'"

In the following video, O'Donnell discusses his termination, the subsequent settlement, and his future plans.

In Part 2, O'Donnell addresses some of the concerns about his role, his controversial white paper, and the new joint oversight committee.

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