At the height of a controversy about the direction of the school’s governing board earlier this year, the chairman of the University of Texas System regents told a fellow regent that he felt as winded as he did during football practices decades ago under coach Darrell Royal.
“Reminds me of two-a-days in Austin in August — you never seem to catch your breath and when you do it feels like steam!” Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, said in an email to Regent Robert Stillwell in March.
That email and hundreds more that circulated among regents and others involved in the controversy were obtained from the UT System by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act.
The messages convey frustration on the part of some regents that they were being criticized as anti-research, as well as an intense interest among regents in gathering data from the system’s campuses on online class offerings, teacher evaluations and other matters. When those data were eventually released publicly, the system said the information was “raw” and “cannot yield accurate analysis, interpretations or conclusions.”
The emails also show that three prominent supporters of higher education wrote a strongly worded letter to Powell urging the regents to make “meaningful statements” regarding the importance of fundamental and applied research, the benefit of the dual mission of teaching and research, and the value of tenured faculty members.
Such statements are essential to address “the perception that actions are being taken that would hurt UT System schools, in particular UT-Austin,” said the letter April 1 from Kenny Jastrow, former CEO of Temple-Inland Inc. and chairman of the university’s ongoing $3 billion capital campaign; Charles Tate, a member of the University of Texas Investment Management Co.’s board; and Pam Willeford, a former chairwoman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and a former ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The UT System is seeking approval from state Attorney General Greg Abbott for its decision to withhold an unknown number of emails and to black out portions of some that it released to the Statesman.
The Statesman will argue that the information should be made public, said Editor Fred Zipp.
The emails give a flavor of Powell’s reaction to criticism from some lawmakers, alumni and others for his hiring of a $200,000-a-year special adviser who had written that much academic research lacks value. Powell also drew criticism for suggesting in an interview with the Statesman that it might be possible to offer cut-rate degrees that he styled as Bel Air quality, a reference to a mid-level Chevrolet of a generation ago.
“I promise everyone I will be much more careful with my metaphors in the future!!!!” Powell said in a March 9 email to various UT System officials.
The adviser, Rick O’Donnell, was dismissed April 19 after accusing top UT System and UT-Austin officials of suppressing information on faculty members’ productivity. O’Donnell and the system reached a settlement Friday under which he agreed not to sue the system in exchange for $70,000 and a glowing letter about his work from Powell.
In a March 14 email to O’Donnell, Powell said the “loyal opposition” is “telling anyone that will listen that you will be making policy and you have been hired to fire the Chancellor, fire the president of UT Austin and to take over the System.”
“The more calm and rational opposition members just think that you are going to implement TPPF policy or to reduce the focus on research at the Flag Ship,” Powell wrote. “I have spent all day explaining that none of these assumptions are correct but the gin mill continues to spin. Evidently it is getting pretty bad in certain parts of the Orangeblood world.”
The TPPF reference was to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based think tank with close ties to Gov. Rick Perry. The foundation and one of its board members, Austin entrepreneur and Perry donor Jeff Sandefer, are proponents of an increased emphasis on teaching, bonus pay for faculty members based on student evaluations and separation of teaching and research budgets.
Another Powell email to O’Donnell recounted a series of meetings March 15, including one with Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who chairs the Higher Education Committee and who has been sharply critical of Powell’s actions and statements.
Very very rough day in the capital,” Powell wrote. “I was almost beheaded by Zaffirini! We are doing damage control now.”
Regent Wallace Hall and O’Donnell, exchanging emails in March, come across as skeptical that the Austin flagship and its president, William Powers Jr., are interested in offering online classes.
“My assumption, until proven otherwise, is that there is very little effort to have fully online courses at UT Austin,” Hall wrote.
O’Donnell replied, “Someone told me that they once heard Powers say ‘we’ll never have online courses’ but I can’t recall who, so don’t quote it!”
And in response to Hall’s email about an upcoming lunch with Powers, O’Donnell said he was supposed to meet with the campus president, too. He suggested a strategy for dealing with Powers: “Let me chat with Gene (Powell) and then let’s talk; seems to me we may want different Regents to start subtly different tacks, primarily by the questions they ask.”
Regents Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich emerge from the emails as eager to obtain and analyze data from the system’s nine academic campuses about various performance, productivity and cost-cutting measures. Pejovich, a member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s board, leads the regents’ advisory panel on excellence and productivity, and Cranberg is a member of the panel.
Pejovich seemed especially interested in reports demanded of campus presidents on what their schools were doing to implement the coordinating board’s cost-cutting recommendations, which included offering more online courses, increasing by 10 percent the number of credit hours taught by faculty members and requiring students to file degree plans when they’ve earned 30 to 36 credits.
Referring to the campuses’ reports in a March 15 email to O’Donnell, Pejovich said: “We can’t look at this one by one. \u2026 How quickly can you get results coordinated?”
She told him to group the results “in a way where if say 75% of campuses say they can or have completed something, it will stand out which campuses say they can’t.”
Cranberg, in an April 13 email to Pejovich, Powell and O’Donnell, said: “I would really like to have a timeline for the rest of the student grading/rating data by faculty member. My quick and dirty statistical analysis of the random sampling received from UT-Austin suggests that approx 90% of the variation in student ratings cannot be explained by the level of grades received.”
Stillwell, also a member of the panel, sounded a cautionary note in an April 25 email. He said that the “considerable materials compiled and distributed by the committee itself have not shed much light on the value (financial and/or otherwise) of research or on the various methods of valuing research at a major university.”
He added that it was important to include comments from credible sources on all sides of the issue.
- Controversial UT Regent Hopes to “Push a Reset Button” (timesoftexas.com)
- Controversy Deflected Attention From Important Work (timesoftexas.com)
- UT Regents Cranberg and Pejovich – Gathering Information to Study, “Fiduciary Responsibility”, says Chairman Powell (timesoftexas.com)
- UT Board Chairman Disputes Fired Official’s Account (timesoftexas.com)
- $70,000 Deal in Hand, ex-UT Official Rips Educators, Lawmaker (timesoftexas.com)
- UT Regent Cranberg – Supports Cigarroa in Call for Greater Transparency and Data-Driven Decision-Making (timesoftexas.com)
- UT Regent Pejovich Presents “University Excellence and Productivity” Task Force Update (timesoftexas.com)