Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Regents' meeting could be defining moment for UT System chancellor; A&M chancellor resigns

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

University of Texas System regents have a lengthy to-do list for their meeting in Austin today and Thursday, but perhaps nothing will be watched more closely than the interplay between the regents and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

A telling moment could come Thursday when Cigarroa outlines what the agenda describes as "a framework for advancing excellence" throughout the system.

The regents are scheduled to vote on his recommendations, and in light of recent controversy about the direction of the UT System, that could amount to a referendum on Cigarroa himself.

This is the first meeting of the regents since debate erupted a few months ago regarding several higher education "breakthrough solutions" advocated by Gov. Rick Perry and Jeff Sandefer, an Austin businessman, philanthropist and Perry campaign contributor.

The turmoil hasn't been restricted to the UT System. The Texas A&M University System's chancellor, Mike McKinney, announced Tuesday that he plans to retire July 1 . He said, "The time has come for me to step aside," but he was not specific.

McKinney, 59, made the announcement a day after the Faculty Senate and the Executive Committee of the Distinguished Professors at the College Station flagship unanimously approved resolutions decrying what they called inappropriate and damaging political intervention in university affairs. A week earlier, 22 people who have been honored as distinguished alumni by A&M's Association of Former Students urged the A&M System Board of Regents to end its support for the Sandefer-Perry recommendations.

The Association of American Universities told McKinney in October that two measures adopted by the system — bonus pay for teachers based exclusively on student evaluations and a cost-revenue rating with research and teaching figures broken out — are simplistic and ignore quality. In 2009, faculty members voted no confidence in him after the president of the College Station campus resigned under pressure following clashes with the chancellor, who is a former chief of staff for Perry.

Much of the debate regarding the UT System's direction was prompted by regents Chairman Gene Powell, who hired an adviser with a record of criticizing much academic research and favoring a heavier emphasis on teaching. The adviser, Rick O'Donnell, had worked for two of Sandefer's charitable foundations.

Some lawmakers, alumni and other critics said O'Donnell's appointment seemed to undercut the authority of the chancellor. O'Donnell was dismissed April 19 after charging that top officials suppressed cost and revenue information on professors.

The UT System told Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday that it expects O'Donnell to sue. Zeena Angadicheril , a lawyer for the system, cited a letter from O'Donnell's lawyer dated five days before he was dismissed.

The letter, which said O'Donnell "expects litigation against the UT System may ensue," apparently was a response to the system's review of an article he wrote for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based research group with close ties to Perry that helped develop the "breakthrough solutions."

"Mr. O'Donnell is reviewing the evidence and evaluating his options, and is hopeful that litigation can be avoided," Brian Bishop, his lawyer, told the Statesman on Tuesday.

Charles Miller, a former chairman of the UT regents, said he expects Cigarroa's remarks to be warmly received by the regents.

"I don't think anybody needs to step down from anything," Miller said, referring to Powell, Cigarroa and UT-Austin President William Powers Jr., who gave a speech Monday defending the dual importance of research and teaching. "My advice would be to slow things down. Take a deep breath."

Currently, 11 boards of regents oversee more than 40 public universities, colleges and technical colleges. Pike Powers, an Austin lawyer who has been active in university matters for years, said consolidating systems could increase efficiency, cut costs and align schools with similar missions.

A recent move by the Association of American Universities to oust the University of Nebraska should be a signal to Texas that it must manage higher education with care, he said. UT and A&M are members of the elite group of research universities, and seven others aspire to become major research institutions.

"It's a culture- and institution-defining time," Powers said.

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604

Also on the agenda

At its meeting today and Thursday, the UT System Board of Regents could name finalists for president of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, revise the compensation package for UT-Austin men's basketball coach Rick Barnes and hear reports from advisory panels on excellence and productivity and on blended and online learning.

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