The Colorado Connection
Tue March 8, 2011 1:23 pm

Last month, the Statesman’s Jason Embry reported that Governor Perry had turned to Colorado to find his newest University of Texas regent, energy executive Alex Cranberg. Now the regents have hired Rick O’Donnell, the former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, as a special advisor. O’Donnell, who began work last week, is more of a Texan than Cranberg, having moved to Austin several years ago after an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2005. Cranberg, a major political donor in Colorado, supported O’Donnell’s campaign. O’Donnell most recently headed the Acton Foundation for Entrepreneurial Excellence, which is affiliated with Austin’s Acton School of Business.

O’Donnell has served as an expert for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where his work has focused on “transparency” and “productivity” in higher education. He has publicly questioned the value of research done at public universities, which he feels sometimes offers a poor return on taxpayer funds. Acton’s innovative MBA program is known for its “students as customers” model of education. Courses are taught by business professionals, not academics, and bonuses are offered for professors who receive high ratings from students.

In a 2009 audio interview archived on the TPPF site, O’Donnell said he felt the same innovations would benefit public universities in Texas. A clip that will be of interest to professors at Texas’ tier one universities:

Texas should consider separating teaching and research budgets. Right now we pay a faculty member their salary, benefits, and office space, and they do a little teaching and they do a little research, and its unclear whether they’re any good at it. What do we get for that money? What Texas could do is say, ‘Look we’ll split how you get paid 50 percent for teaching and 50 percent for research, and at the end of the year we’re going to ask a simple question: How many students did you teach and did they rate you highly or not, and how much research did you produce.’ And was it good research? And then we can say, hey, did we get our money’s worth?

Listen to the interview here.

And one more nugget from the same interview, suggesting what university presidents can expect from O’Donnell: “We’ve supported our institutions of higher ed quite well with taxpayer funding. So frankly I don’t think there’s any reason for tuition increases. It just means the institutions haven’t wanted to do the hard work of cutting costs and getting more productive.”

By Nate Blakeslee

UPDATE:

I heard back from Rick O’Donnell and he had this to say about his appointment and the potential reaction from administrators and professors: “People are gonna agree and disagree with what I have written in the past. If a faculty member sees something and says, ‘I don’t know what that means,’ then I’m happy to talk to anyone and engage in frank discussion. I don’t know everything, that’s for sure. I have a lot to learn about the UT system from the leadership and faculty. I’m here to really serve the chancellor and serve the board and push their mission forward.”

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