Statesman: UT invested $10 million without disclosing ties to Perry allies, ex-chancellor

Posted on: October 31st, 2011 by Patrick Michels No Comments

When the University of Texas System made an unusual $10 million investment in a student technology startup called MyEdu, regents failed to disclose that a former system chancellor, and associates of Gov. Rick Perry, have major stakes in the company.

An investigation by the Austin American-Statesman uncovered those ties, which include former Chancellor William Cunningham’s $175,000 investment in the company, and MyEdu CEO Michael Crosno’s role on Perry’s campaign finance committee in his 2010 re-election bid.

Despite a reform framework geared, in part, toward making what happens at UT campuses more transparent, the Statesman writes this was a deal “struck almost completely behind the scenes,” initiated by Regent Alex Cranberg, a conservative reformer appointed to the board by Perry who has thrown himself into the higher ed controversy of the last year.

Many regents, and even current Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, told the Statesman they weren’t aware of the ties to former system officials or Perry allies — and stressed that even if they had known, it wouldn’t have influenced their decision:

Steve Hicks, a vice chairman of the regents who helped negotiate the MyEdu deal, said he wasn’t informed of the Cunninghams’ interest.

But “I do not feel it is a material matter,” Hicks said. “It would not have influenced my vote.”

The regents’ investment came directly from the Permanent University Fund, a pool normally managed by the private University of Texas Investment Management Company. But regents told the Statesman they were so enamored of MyEdu’s offerings, they reached out directly to the company to partner with UT. The $10 million investment constitutes a little more than a one-fifth stake in the company, which regents hope will make its UT-specific programming a high priority.

Evolved from the Pick-A-Prof faculty rating tool first developed at Texas A&M University, MyEdu has become a blanket tool for students to select instructors, and schedule out their degree program to choose courses efficiently. To do that, it already relies on data that are already made public by UT.

That point left some questioning why the system should spend so much money on a service that repackages information it already makes available:

MyEdu doesn’t offer users any information not already publicly available; the company collects details about individual schools and teachers through open records requests and by scraping schools’ websites.

Many universities, including Texas, offer their own schedule- and career-planning tools and post summaries of student evaluations of faculty members.

But Crosno said MyEdu arranges and presents the information better, and in a single location. “We deliver the technology in a form that students accept,” he said.

The Statesman quotes some in the UT family who haven’t been impressed by all that MyEdu does, and are concerned that the company’s claims don’t quite match the way students really use the service. “A UT-Austin student survey conducted last year confirmed most students used the site to check professors’ grade distributions,” the Statesman said.

MyEdu was the subject of a Texas Tribune profile earlier this year, as well.

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