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O'Donnell Letter

O'Donnell Letter

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Published by Nolan Hicks
Rick O'Donnell's resignation letter from the UT System.
Rick O'Donnell's resignation letter from the UT System.

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Published by: Nolan Hicks on Apr 19, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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  April 18, 2011Dear Regent Hall:Per your request, here are my views of the continuing discussions in the media and elsewhere
regarding the Regents’ task forces and my work 
to support them. As you know, I was hired six weeks ago to serve as Special Advisor to the Board of Regents. Iaccepted this role because I believed that my previous experience as head of higher education for theState of Colorado would allow me to assist the Regents as they seek answers to (1) how to advanceexcellence to ensure that more Texas students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need tofind a job in the 21
century economy, (2) how to serve more students by expanding access to themany educational assets of the U.T. System, and (3) how to encourage innovation in policy, programand resource management at every level to make a four-year college education more affordable.Every day, even after subsequently being informed of a new title and reporting structure, my work has been focused on following-up on these vital questions that you and other Regents are actively exploring.Even though I have become a part of the story, these are the issues that take up most my time on a24/7 basis. In my experience in public life, it often happens that attention to big issues and big ideasoften get deflected to personalities or institutional squabbles (e.g., turf wars). It is unfortunate buttrue. But I am not deflected from the real issues, which do not revolve around personalities orpolitics. The real story is how massive shifts
demographic, financial, technological and attitudinal
are transforming the higher education landscape across America. There is also the question of therole of competitive proprietary institutions providing post-secondary degrees and what that meansfor state-supported institutions.I have always taken the view that it is the responsibility of leaders to define reality. That comes first,before you can do anything. While some opinion leaders are allowing their attention to be deflectedfrom the real issues, the facts remain: Almost every state continues a long-term decline in taxpayerfunding for colleges and universities. Students and parents cannot afford another tuition increase,and
wrong to saddle graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. More low-income and first-generation students want to attend college. Employers continue to raise concernsabout the quality of education students receive. New technologies are transforming how studentslearn and teachers teach, but it is not clear we are taking full advantage of these assets that can helpus increase access, improve quality, and reduce per-student costs. These massive shifts coupled with these facts make this a critical time to ensure all nine of ouracademic campuses are deploying the latest learning technologies and modern managementtechniques. The question is, how will our universities thrive in this rapidly changing landscape andmake more affordable the very best learning in America, making Texas first for students andemployers?Unfortunately, in the last few weeks, that central question has been lost in a torrent of personal andpolitical attacks, which continue to escalate.
Some have attacked white papers I wrote, which were intended to spur a dialogue on how tomeasure the return of taxpayer dollars invested in resear
ch. As we’ve previously discussed, the role
of a think tank white paper is to spur debate, while the role of a leader in government is to act
as Idid in Colorado where my track record as a leader who understands and values research, including basic research, was crystal clear, including the high value I place on the many important roles of research universities.Recently it was discovered that one of my white papers suffered from a production snafu the resultof which caused problems within the text and footnotes. The think tank that published the paperhas acknowledged the errors occurred during their publication process. I have also noted that thisand all my whitepapers are the result of collaborative projects where many hands touch them during the research, writing, editing and publishing phases. So there are many opportunities for error. Still,because I was the project leader and because my name is on the piece I accept ultimateresponsibility. I have no doubt that those who want to deny or mute the need for higher educationreform are busy pouring over the dozens of advocacy pieces I have published in my career, using afine tooth comb to identify areas where I could have been more precise with footnotes, quotationsand other items. It seems that some want to retroactively apply the standards of a scholar and theacademy to work I did years ago, yet none of my writings were for academic journals and I am not ascholar, and I have never claimed to be; I am an average citizen who cares deeply about improving higher education, and I have expressed those views in public many times
in writing, while running for Congress, in testimony before the state legislature.Errors are part of life
even professional life. That
s why a
cademic books have “errata” pages andnewspapers publish “retractions” when inadvertent errors occur.
I have acknowledged
andoffered retraction and correction. Notwithstanding, those who want to delay and deflect areunwilling to move on. Instead, taxpayer money is now being wasted on a review of this issue,forcing me to hire an attorney to defend myself. I think students, parents and taxpayers care farmore about reforms and innovations that can expand educational opportunities at an affordableprice than they do about digging into reasons that admitted errata crept into a report from a projectyears ago. Things I have written and said have been attacked. My associations with former colleagues andorganizations have come under intense scrutiny. One of the core principles of our universities is theidea of free inquiry 
including the freedom to ask tough questions. I have simply exercised thatsame freedom of inquiry as I work to assist the task forces in trying to find answers to the questionsRegents are asking. And the questions being asked are pretty fundamental
e.g., how to strengthenour universities to better serve students, parents, economic competitiveness and the pursuit of knowledge and discovery.So, why the uproar? How is it that someone who has been on the job just 49 days, with no decision-making authority, has become an object of such scorn and caused such tumult that, in the words of 
the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, it “shook the foundations of UT”?
Here’s my answer. Immediately upon starting my new job, on your
behalf and that of the otherRegents, I began to ask for data that would inform the task force members on how student tuitiondollars and taxpayer money were being spent. Despite the fact that these data belong to the public,that by law it should be available to every citizen (and certainly to the Regents), and that the Regentsgoverning the University of Texas are duty bound to ask for these data and had done so, the release
of such data was resisted at the highest levels of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System.Rather than release these data, we were met with what some have called a well-orchestrated publicrelations campaign of breathless alarms, much like shout
ing “fire” in a crowded theater
. Generousdonors and loyal alumni have been understandably (and needlessly) disturbed by dire warnings abouta
“loss of prestige” and “destroying research.”
But given that the Regents are simply exercising theirfiduciary responsibility to ask questions and request data about faculty productivity, I believe these were false alarms, meant to divert attention away from questions about how tuition and taxpayermoney are being spent and to delay reforms that might arise out of the Regents
task forces.If there has been any damage to the reputation of the University of Texas, it has not come from the
Regents’ task forces or my work for them. Any damage that has occurred must be laid at the feet of 
those who have diverted attention to secondary issues and then encouraged the uproar. Whetheruniversity norms were violated with regard to spreading false rumors or if there was the improperuse of political influence by university employees, as some have pointed out to me may be the case, Ileave to others to inquire.I am concerned, however, that data I have reviewed, which has not been released to the public,shows a growing number of student tuition and taxpayer dollars are being paid to professors andadministrators who seem to do very little teaching. And let us not forget, in a public opinionresearch study last year,
87 percent of Texans said that that universities’ top priority should be
educating students, with only 6 percent stating that conducting research should be the top priority.My belief is that these data, which rightfully belong to the public, should be fully released, not only so the task force members may analyze it but also so the public and outside experts may do so as well. The chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee recently raised concerns about
university business being done “behind closed doors, as secretly as possible. And if there’s any arena
in which that is wrong, i
t is higher education.” I concur with her sentiments and believe that
thebusiness of the task forces should be done with complete disclosure according to the transparency rules the Regents have adopted for this effort.Only then will people be able to know, in the words of former U.T. Austin arts and sciences deanand Boston University President Emeritus
 John Silber from yesterday’s Austin
-American Statesmen,
if “the cost of education is largely a function of the reduction of productivity in the faculty, and alsothe huge engorgement in administration.”
 I know there are many inside the universities, the hard working people who serve students andtaxpayers, who are also concerned with a decline in faculty teaching. I know this because I havebeen privately encouraged by many of our faculty members to continue following-up on thequestions Regents are asking even though they fear speaking out in public. One brave man who wasnot scared to speak up was Dr. Murphy Smith a long serving scholar teacher in accounting, whoamong his specialties is an expert in the area of financial reporting and fraud. Although I have nevermet Dr. Smith, he reached out to me and authorized me to share his letter, which I attach.Notwithstanding the personal and political attacks of the last six weeks, I want to thank you and theother Regents for the opportunity to work every day on the central question that has driven all my higher education work during my career: trying to discover ever better ways to ensure that as many 

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