Jeff Sandefer, the architect of proposals that are creating controversy in Texas higher education, downplayed his influence on Gov. Rick Perry and state education policies in an interview published in the Austin American-Statesman.
Oilman Sandefer, a Texas Public Policy Foundation board member, has given $400,000 to Perry in campaign contributions since 2000.
Sandefer’s “seven breakthrough solutions” suggest de-emphasizing research, rating professors on their profitability and awarding those with good student evaluations with cash bonuses. His ideas have garnered censure from prestigious academic associations, as well as prominent alumni and donors at the state‘s flagship universities. He has criticized professors for writing “articles that few read, the vast majority of which would never, and I want to stress never, be supported by the market. And the whole corrupt enterprise survives parasitically only by siphoning vast amounts of tuition and cross subsidization unbeknownst to parents, students and taxpayers.”
Sandefer is more than an oilman. He also founded his own graduate level business school and private elementary school, both in Austin. The Acton School of Business, a nonprofit institution taught by non-academics in the entrepreneurial field, offers a one-year program in which instructors are given financial bonuses based on weekly student evaluations. High professor ratings can lead to a $30,000 bonus, while low ratings means they likely won‘t be asked back.
“We are very focused on students as customers,” said Sandefer, who likened the classroom to a free market. “We break the idea that promotes ‘teacher as parent’ and ‘teacher as approver.’ We let classes set their own level which is always further ahead than ours.” The bonuses, said Sandefer, are completely dependent on if, “the student got what was promised to them.” Read more about Acton and Sandefer in a Texas Independent story from October.
In the Statesman story, Sandefer denied having undue sway on appointing regents. Sandefer’s influence also came under scrutiny when Gene Powell, chairman of the University of Texas System regents, hired adviser Rick O’Donnell, who had been president of one of Sandefer’s charitable foundations, an adviser to another and agreed with many of Sandefer’s educational goals. O’Donnell was later fired after accusing university officials of suppressing a list of costs and revenues for each teacher at the UT System’s campuses, information UT recently released.
Also, e-mails indicate that Sandefer knew Alex Cranberg and Wallace Hall would be appointed to the UT Board of Regents weeks before the governor’s office announced it. But Sandefer denied having a role in the governor’s selection of Cranberg, Hall and another UT regent, Brenda Pejovich, who, like Sandefer, is on the TPPF board. In the Statesman interview, he stressed that picking regents was not his job, though he acknowledged knowing Cranberg through the oil business for more than 20 years, and said that Cranberg had worked for General Atlantic, a firm that invested in Sandefer Offshore. Sandefer and Hall studied petroleum engineering together at UT, but Sandefer told the Statesman they were not close.
Sandefer told the Statesman he planned to “tone down the provocative questions for a while,” but he recently sent a letter to friends saying that a defense of research “cannot be used to hide waste and inefficiency” and that higher education insiders cannot be allowed “to frighten donors and alumni as a way of avoiding tough questions about faculty productivity and costs.”
In an earlier Houston Chronicle article, Dr. Kenneth Ashworth, the state’s former commissioner of higher education, recalled UT scientists being mocked for studying the sex lives of screw worm flies. “Such trivia! But their finding became the key to resolving a screw worm epidemic that nearly destroyed the entire Texas cattle industry in the 1960s.”
“How do you assign monetary value for uncovering the lessons of history?” the Chronicle article asked. “UT’s Dr. Tom Hatfield has published a book recounting the life of D-Day hero James Earl Rudder, the leader of the brave Army Rangers who scaled the imposing cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day under incessant Nazi fire. Sixteen years later, Rudder vowed as president of Texas A&M College to transform it from a second-rate school with declining enrollment into a first-class university. Rudder banished entrenched provincialism and never wavered from his conviction that an ‘immutable marriage’ existed between teaching and research. “It is not water or real estate or labor or power or cheap taxes alone that attracts industry,” Rudder once said. “It’s brainpower.””
Sandefer lives in one of Texas’ great historic mansions, in Austin’s Old Enfield neighborhood. Sandefer told the Statesman that he would be happy living in a 3,000-square-foot house, but he actually lives in the 8,154-square-foot estate that has been the home of two former governors — and, if former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock had had his way, would have been the new Governor’s Mansion. Read more about Woodlawn (also known as Pease Mansion) in this Austin Chronicle story from 2002.