UT Controversy – Both Sides Say They Care About Higher Ed

Both believe and fundamentally say they care about the quality and accessibility of higher education.

By Reeve Hamilton

Randy Diehl, the dean of the University at Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts, is looking for ways to boost undergraduate graduation rates. Earlier this week, UT President Bill Powers told Diehl he’d be leading a task force on just that issue.

One set of proposals Diehl is unlikely to look to is the so-called “seven breakthrough solutions” — a set of changes for higher education in Texas written by Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer and promoted by Gov. Rick Perry. Today, Diehl responded to the proposals by releasing an analysis of each one. His conclusion: “Put simply, this is the wrong approach.”

Deihl’s report comes at a time when the state’s higher education debate has been stirred anew, though players on both sides say they are open to reaching common ground.

The latest turbulence was instigated by the re-emergence of Rick O’Donnell, a former adviser to the University of Texas System whose hiring was one of the sparks that ignited the initial controversy. After 49 days on the job, O’Donnell was abruptly ousted in April after alleging that top administrators at UT and the UT System were suppressing information and thwarting needed reforms. While O’Donnell and the system reached a settlement after he threatened a lawsuit over his termination, O’Donnell recently has told reporters that he stands by his allegations.

Gene Powell, the chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, who had written O’Donnell a glowing letter of as part of the settlement, called O’Donnell’s recent comments “unfortunate.” In a statement he said that UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa did not oppose or hinder regents as O’Donnell charged.

“The Board of Regents has an excellent relationship with Chancellor Cigarroa and fully supports his vision and commitment to advance excellence in education, research, patient care and service across the great University of Texas System,” Powell said.

The Texas Exes, the university’s large alumni organization, also issued a press release reaffirming their support for UT President Bill Powers “due to recent public attacks of him and his character.”

Diehl says his response to the “breakthrough solutions”, which took approximately two months to compile and can be accessed on online on a new website, is motivated by a similar sentiment. “I really wanted to stand with the president and the chancellor, and I thought this was one way we could contribute.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative think tank that promotes the “solutions,” also has a new website, improvehighered.com. It makes no mention of the seven solutions. TPPF spokesman David Guenthner told the Tribune last month that the group remains open to other proposals.

“Everyone seems to be portraying the seven breakthrough solutions as tablets we carried down from Mount Sinai,” he said. “They are ideas on paper. We think they are very good ideas, but if other people have better ways to accomplish those objectives, we are open to having a conversation.”

Diehl pointed to the university’s implementation of recommendations of the Commission of 125 which conducted a massive review of the university. Examples include the creation of small freshman “signature courses” and UT’s ongoing course redesign efforts.

He rejected the allegation that the university is inefficient, pointing out that widely distributed reports failed to take into account metrics such as graduation rates.  He also cautioned that increasing tuition needed to be understood in the context of diminishing state contributions.

Though, Diehl says he welcomes proposals on how to improve higher education like the “seven breakthrough solutions,” which he says he sought to address in a “respectful but effective manner.”

Of the proponents of the “solutions,” he says, “I believe fundamentally they care about the quality and accessibility of higher education. I share that. I think there are many shared values as we go forward here.”

Alex Cranberg, a UT regent whose requests for data have caused some discomfort on the system’s campuses, has also indicated a desire to find common ground. He has begun making inquiries about joining the recently formed Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a large group of prominent Texans who have joined together in response to the debate over the “seven breakthrough solutions.” In an email to the Tribune, Cranberg said he wishes to do his part to “inform their efforts and support their aims.”

The coalition announced 24 new founding members to the organization last week, including Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly and Michael Levy, the founder of Texas Monthly. Cranberg’s name was not on the list. A spokeswoman said he had signed up through website, but not made the financial contributions of the founding members.

“The Coalition will do its best work if it is well informed about what sorts of ideas are actually under consideration as opposed to those which are not,” wrote Cranberg, who has also expressed an interest to being a member of the group’s leadership committees. “It’s not a good use of time to fight over things we agree over.”


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