UT Board of Regents settles with O'Donnell to prevent lawsuit

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Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Rick O'Donnell | Daily Texan Staff

The University of Texas System will pay $70,000 as part of a settlement with a former Board of Regents adviser who officials say was planning to sue the system following his dismissal in April.

Former adviser Rick O’Donnell was employed from March to April and was dismissed by UT administrators following controversy over statements he made criticizing university research efforts. According to the terms of the settlement, the UT System will pay O’Donnell $70,000 and issue him a letter from the Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell stating O’Donnell was inaccurately portrayed by his critics.

“Much of what you were hired to do ... was, as you know, mischaracterized by some and the subject of controversy that was not of your making, a controversy that deflected attention from the mission of your important work,” Powell wrote in the letter.

O’Donnell indicated he had plans to sue if he was unable to reach a peaceful resolution with University officials, UT System Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Barry Burgdorf said in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman Monday.

“It was very clear that he was going to sue the UT System and he had the backing to do it,” Burgdorf said to the Statesman. “It would have cost me a lot more to defend that lawsuit and get it dismissed than we ended up paying.”

Under the settlement, neither O’Donnell or University officials will admit any wrongdoing and both parties agree not to take further legal action against one another.

Powell’s decision to hire O’Donnell on March 1 sparked much controversy as he was set to receive a $200,000 yearly salary during a period of budget cuts and hiring freezes in the UT System. The Board of Regents later shifted O’Donnell from his role of advising University administrators on efficiency and effective teaching techniques to a temporary position scheduled to end on Aug. 31.

O’Donnell’s affiliation with local think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation also received public criticism. In 2008, O’Donnell wrote a policy paper for the organization criticizing publicly funded academic research and claiming it has “few tangible benefits.”

“I looked at the return on scientific research as measured by available data such as income royalties and licenses on patents,” O’ Donnell said in a letter to the Board of Regents on March 25. “Whether we want the attention or not, it seems clear that questions on productivity, efficiency, and accountability for our research universities and research expenditures are being asked.”