Regents' campaign contributions paint a picture

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According to the Federal Election Commission and opensecrets.org, five out of eight non-student UT System regents have made contributions of $2,500 — the maximum allowed under Federal Election Commission rules — to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s campaigns for the governorship or presidency. Though these relatively modest sums aren’t enough to warrant cries of cronyism, other much larger contributions to state and national conservative political groups make it clear that raising money for the Republican Party isn’t a bad idea if one aspires to be a regent.

While political donations of all sizes surprise few after the decision reached in Citizens United v. FEC, the extent to which many regents associate with and support like-minded political organizations underscores how the board, which exists to provide leadership for the system’s 15 universities, deliberates and makes decisions that will affect the quality of higher education in the state of Texas. Few, if any, dissenting voices exist to counter the political ambitions of the majority of board members.

One example of board members’ commitment to conservative causes is chairman Gene Powell, Jr.’s assistance in raising $102,475 for Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential run in 2008. The $2,500 campaign contribution limit applies to national political figures as well, so after meeting that limit, Powell worked as a “bundler,” encouraging friends and associates in high places to make contributions to McCain that Powell could bundle and deliver to the campaign in one mega-check.

Board Vice Chairman Paul Foster has made consistent donations in the low thousands to former Republican Sen. John Cornyn and the American Fuels and Petrochemicals Manufacturers Political Action Committee. Additionally, Foster has given $200,000 in the past two years to conservative super-PACs Make Us Great Again, a political action committee supporting Perry, and American Crossroads, the super-PAC formed by Republican strategist Karl Rove that was partly responsible for Republican victories across the Midwest during the 2010 senatorial elections.

Most salient of all, records show that Regent Alex Cranberg gave $2,100 to the group Coloradoans for Rick O’Donnell in 2005. While serving as director of Colorado’s Department of Higher Education, O’Donnell, a Republican, made his second unsuccessful run for the Colorado State Legislature. As evidenced by his campaign contribution, Cranberg, a fellow Coloradoan, knew about O’Donnell and approved of his politics.

In the same month that Gov. Perry appointed Cranberg to the Board of Regents, O’Donnell was hired to serve as a special adviser to the UT System. His employment ended after only a month and a half on the job, likely because of the public outcry against the controversial policies he pushed. He made an impression quickly with his antagonistic attitude toward university research, outspoken advocacy for “efficiency” and questionable connection with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative nonprofit think tank based in Austin.

Regents’ campaign contributions show that O’Donnell’s voice wasn’t the only one championing a right-wing agenda. Though O’Donnell left the Board of Regents before he was able to enact any of the reforms he suggested, his ideas about evaluating UT’s effectiveness solely by quantitative measures such as graduation times continue to dominate the debate about UT’s future. Matt Angle, founder of the Lone Star Project, a federal political action committee that fact checks Texas Republicans, cites such questionable political connections as the consequences of one-party rule.

“They’re politicizing the higher education system,” Angle said. “What it [data on contributions] does is it basically signals to anybody that if you want to serve on the Board of Regents then you need to be politically loyal, not just to Rick Perry but to a very narrow right-wing point of view.”

In an overwhelmingly conservative state, it isn’t shocking that the regents’ political affiliations are also conservative — especially since they are appointed by one of the most conservative governors in the country. We shouldn’t be surprised when the Board of Regents pushes conservative reforms to higher education when its history of political activity makes the writing on the wall so clear.