Texas higher education politics is in an uproar, and Colorado education reformers are in the middle of the action.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is pondering a presidential run, has launched an effort to reduce tuition costs and to increase productivity of the state’s two main research universities – the University of Texas (with 9 academic campuses) and Texas A&M (11 campuses).
Major players in the effort have Colorado ties. Rick O’Donnell, now a Texas think tank consultant who formerly headed Colorado’s Department of Higher Education and was policy chief under Governor Bill Owens (also defeated Republican congressional candidate); Alex Cranberg, an oil magnate and a K-12 educational reformer (pro vouchers) in Colorado; and Phil Burgess, one time head of the Center for the New West, a now defunct policy group, which was sponsored by US West.
O’Donnell has been the point person for Perry, who is using the Texas think tank to help produce analyses and recommendations to shake up the universities. The multi-year effort has caused a massive counterattack from university interest groups fighting to protect their autonomy and traditional methods of operation and compensations. One casualty was O’Donnell, who in late May was hired at the encouragement of UT Regents in a highly visible position to gather and analyze system-wide data on teaching, research and compensation. He was fired unceremoniously in a few weeks by the UT administration.
Phil Burgess came to the defense of O’Donnell in a Memorial weekend guest editorial in the Austin Standard portraying his old friend as an effective innovator in Colorado.
Perry is also adding like-minded people to the governing boards of the Texas state universities. Cranberg is one of his new picks for the UT Board of Regents.
While the effort has been derailed for the moment, there have been a number of initiatives at both A&M and UT. The state’s higher education establishment, its supporters, and both independent and critical stakeholders are now highly engaged in the discussion.
Although Colorado’s higher education system suffers from many of the same problems as those in Texas, and our major research universities are led by people with business backgrounds, reform here has been more modest and low key. Recent legislation (SB 52) calls for statewide goals and a master planning process. A similar planning effort was started at the beginning of the Ritter administration.
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