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Regents' special assistant is ousted

O'Donnell had claimed access to UT System data was blocked.

Rick O'Donnell has been terminated as special research assistant at the University of Texas System, a $200,000-a-year job that kicked up controversy almost as soon as it was created for him six weeks ago. The news follows a San Antonio Express-News analysis that turned up two dozen errors in a policy paper O'Donnell wrote in 2008, and a letter in which O'Donnell accuses his bosses at the UT System of blocking his efforts to get data that he says reveal an increasing share of tuition and taxpayer dollars going to professors and administrators who do little teaching.

O'Donnell sent the letter Monday to Wallace Hall, a UT regent from Dallas who chairs a task force on online learning that O'Donnell was hired to facilitate.

On Tuesday, Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT System, terminated O'Donnell's employment. System officials declined to comment other than to confirm O'Donnell no longer works there.

In a statement, O'Donnell thanked regents for the opportunity to work “on the central question that has driven all my higher education work during my career: trying to discover ever better ways to ensure that as many students as possible have access to the highest quality college education at the most affordable cost. ... While it was not my choice to depart at this time, I am hopeful that the commitment to improving the productivity of the UT System will continue for the sake of taxpayers and the sake of students.”

In his letter to Hall, O'Donnell pits UT staff and administrators against regents, accusing UT employees of stoking drama around O'Donnell to divert attention from reform efforts aimed at shaking up the status quo.

“Rather than release the data, we were met with what some have called a well-orchestrated public relations campaign of breathless alarms, much like shouting ‘fire' in a crowded theater,” O'Donnell wrote. He also complained that taxpayer money was being wasted on a review of his flawed paper, prompting him to hire a lawyer to defend himself. In a joint statement, UT-Austin and the UT System denied that staffers were “purposefully suppressing” the data, saying the information is being gathered in raw form and will be corrected and sent to regents.

When O'Donnell was hired six weeks ago, alumni, donors and lawmakers questioned why UT regents would bring on a consultant at $200,000 a year in tough economic times, and why they picked someone who claimed that most academic research was a waste of time in a 2008 paper for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.

Rumors swirled that O'Donnell had been enlisted to bring UT to heel to Gov. Rick Perry's ideas about higher education reform and that some newer regents had tried to fire Cigarroa and Bill Powers, UT Austin's president, for “insubordination.”

O'Donnell's accusation of “resistance at the highest levels of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System” seems to point directly to Cigarroa and Powers.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, one of the lawmakers who openly criticized O'Donnell's hiring, said that in her opinion, his attack on UT officials bolsters rumors that he was brought in to facilitate firing top administrators.

“This (letter) to me confirms those suspicions,” Zaffirini said. The turmoil boils down to a tug-of-war between reformers who want to wring more efficiency out of higher education by rooting out wasteful spending on research, and those seeking gradual changes that would keep the system's mighty research enterprise intact.

Spearheading the reform team is Perry, who has embraced the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” of a wealthy entrepreneur named Jeff Sandefer, founder of Acton MBA in Austin and one of his largest donors. Perry appoints the regents, who hired O'Donnell, a former employee of Sandefer's at Acton.

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