special adviser

UT System Board of Regents officials may have made the controversial hire of a special adviser without the necessary recommendation from the chancellor, according to emails obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

In February, the Board of Regents hired Rick O’Donnell to report to the board for two task forces on efficiency and online learning. His salary was originally set at $200,000 per year.

Lawmakers, University officials, alumni and donors expressed concern through statements and letters to the board about O’Donnell’s writings on higher education reform that call for lowered emphasis on research. Concerns centered on O’Donnell’s work with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that advocates for more emphasis on teaching versus research at public universities. In response, the board shortened O’Donnell’s appointment and reassigned him to report to System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa until Aug. 31.

The emails obtained by the Chronicle indicate board chairman Gene Powell and general counsel to the board Francie Frederick created the job posting and made the hiring decision.

The Chronicle reported the chancellor wrote asking for specifics on the position after it was posted online Feb. 11.

“I really do not know full responsibilities — just generalities,” Cigarroa wrote, according to the Chronicle. “Who is going to announce this to our officers? They should not be caught by surprise.”

After the making the hire on Feb. 28, Frederick told Powell to inform the rest of the board and the chancellor of the hire, according to the emails. Four days later, Frederick informed Powell the chancellor was up to date.

The System defended its hiring of the adviser. A spokesman said the hiring process for O’Donnell wasn’t out of the ordinary and adhered to all relevant state regulations.

“It is my understanding the Board Office followed standard and established recruitment and hiring processes as administered by the Office of Employee Services,” said system spokesman Anthony DeBruyn.

System policy makes the board responsible for hiring or appointing all system employees “upon the recommendation of the Chancellor.”