On Thursday, The University of Texas System reassigned special adviser Rick O’Donnell and stipulated that the former Colorado higher ed chief’s position will be terminated at the end of the current fiscal year. The move — which was much more high-profile than the initial hiring of the former Texas Public Policy Foundation expert — came in response to resounding criticism from higher education experts and alumni of TPPF’s influence on university policy and O’Donnell’s skepticism of the value of academic research.
At the same time, about 100 miles northeast of Austin, Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign treasurer Richard Box was elevated to the position of chair of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, while major Perry donor and TPPF board member Phil Adams was elected vice-chair, the Bryan-College Station Eagle reports.
At UT, O’Donnell will no longer report directly to UT Regents chair Gene Powell, but instead to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. O’Donnell will be dismissed, at the latest, on Sept. 1, the San Antonio Express-News reports.
In addition to O’Donnell’s work for TPPF, where he questioned the value of academic research and proposed splitting teaching and research functions, O’Donnell actually played a major role in implementing Colorado’s unique college student voucher program while he was head of higher education in that state from 2004-2006, the Austin American-Statesman notes. The Texas Independent previously reported on O’Donnell’s involvement in the ‘College Opportunity Fund,’ which, in addition to tying college funding to students rather than institutions, also effectively severs teaching and research funding.
And while O’Donnell will no longer report directly to Powell (who’s given more than $110,000 to Perry over the years), his role will be to provide staff support to two special advisory committees, one on “university excellence and productivity” and one on “blended and online learning,” the Texas Tribune reports. UT Regent and TPPF board member Brenda Pejovich is spearheading the committee on excellence and productivity, which also includes new Regent Alex Cranberg, a prominent supporter of charter schools and school vouchers in Colorado, as the Texas Independent previously reported.
Committee findings were first due to be released in May, while the Texas Legislature is still in session, but now the committees could still be working through the summer, after the Legislature ends. Several key higher ed leaders in the Legislature have also criticized O’Donnell’s hiring.
A page on UT’s website is dedicated to the special advisory committees, with a “Background Reading List” for each committee. Included on the reading list for the excellence and productivity committee is a book by Clark Aldrich called Unschooling Rules, which purports to contain “55 ways to unlearn what we know about schools and rediscover education.” The foreword to Aldrich’s book was written by TPPF board member Jeff Sandefer, founder of the Acton School of Business and one of the architects of TPPF’s seven “breakthrough solutions” for higher education, now in various stages of implementation at A&M. On his blog, Aldrich calls Sandefer a “visionary.”
Also on the reading list is a two-part presentation by InterEd Inc. consulting group, aimed at university leaders exploring the institution of a three-year degree plan. In addition to numerous statements elsewhere on its website critical of traditional universities and laudatory of for-profit colleges, “The Three-Year Degree” presentation includes the following passages attributed to InterEd President/CEO Robert W. Tucker:
“Most university administrators see the advantages of offering their products in various formats to different markets. The professoriate, on the other hand, rhapsodizes about an antiquated model of higher education in which professors ruled and students took copious notes. There was no substantial corpus of knowledge derived from the learning and pedagogical sciences. Only the smart and the rich attended. Efficiency was not a concern. There was little infrastructure or superstructure. The system operated in a 19th Century agrarian economy serving 2-3% of the theoretical market.”
“Bring the incessant and self-serving whining about academic ‘rigor’ and ‘quality’ to an end. The posture is not only unattractive and hypocritical, it is a lie. Notwithstanding degrees for which there are external proficiency benchmarks, only a handful of the nation’s colleges and universities conduct scientifically sound integrated assessments of learning processes, outcomes, and impact, including student goal attainment. Of these few institutions, perhaps 10% use the information systematically as decision-support to improve quality, efficiency, etc. The rest of the schools conform to Ted Manning’s observations by producing copious claims to vague notions of quality they can’t prove, and don’t understand very well.”
“Replace the unsound, unprovable, and largely irrelevant notions of rigor and quality with the understanding that modern definitions of quality derive from the construct “Suitability to Purpose“—but whose purpose? Most economists would argue that the customer’s purpose is central and dominant. Higher education, on the other hand, discounts the student as a customer and derives its notions of quality from professorial purposes, which are often at variance with those of the customer.”
In related news, the head of UT’s former students association issued a call to action to members of the influential organization. The letter blasting UT Regents’ decision to hire O’Donnell begins: “We need your immediate help to address what is unquestionably the most serious threat our University has faced in years. The mission and core values of our beloved University are under attack.” (via the Houston Chronicle’s Texas Politics blog)
On the other hand, news aggregator Push Junction published a letter, attributed to San Antonio entrepreneur Red McCombs, wherein the namesake of UT-Austin’s business school urges unified support of university leaders and Gov. Perry. McCombs has given Perry nearly $450,000 in campaign contributions since 2000, including $170,000 in 2009-2010, according to Texas Ethics Commission records.