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A&M professors lash out over former UT adviser’s report on faculty productivity

Texas A&M University faculty are unhappy with a recent report on faculty productivity written by Rick O’Donnell, a former special adviser to the University of Texas Board of Regents.

The report, released last month, splits instructors into groups according to labels like “dodgers” and “sherpas,” based on the credit hours they teach and the grant money they attract.

O’Donnell’s past writings, published by the conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, have been criticized for being riddled with factual errors and for undermining the value of academic research.

In his most recent report, O’Donnell compares the workload at UT and Texas A&M, to “a Himalayan trek, where indigenous Sherpas carry the heavy loads so Western tourists can simply enjoy the view.” In his analysis of faculty, he divides professors into five categories: “dodgers,” “coasters,” “sherpas,” “pioneers” and “stars.”

Some A&M faculty call the terms insulting, and the analysis weak.

“Differential workloads in universities the size of UT or Texas A&M exist for multiple reasons, none of them captured by O’Donnell’s infantile analytical methods,” said professor Harold Livesay, who specializes in U.S. business and economic history. “This amounts to nothing more than a barf from a disgruntled former employee.”

O’Donnell was hired at a $200,000 annual salary to advise regents, then fired. The UT System reached a $70,000 settlement with him in July.

Lisako J. McKyer, an assistant professor of health education has spoken at regents’ meetings, warning against influence from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation which supports reforms built around productivity analysis.

”It is so insulting and there is no solid or sound argument that can be made by supporting inciting categories,” McKyer said. “He came up with these inciting categories that elicit a visceral response, because he has no data. If there is nothing inside, you try to make the paper as glittery as possible.”

Mechanical engineering professor Jaime Grunlan, a longtime critic of TPPF-backed reforms, wasn’t impressed by the report. “He writes it in a seemingly logical way, but leaves out key details that make it biased,” he said. “He does not even acknowledge the difference between a research and a teaching university.”

Grunlan pointed out that his research, often subsidized by top chemical companies, brings money and jobs to the state. He questions the focus on faculty salaries, when the state is also paying for O’Donnell’s five-figure settlement deal, and former chancellor Mike McKinney’s $7000,000 retirement package.

“They are the ones that need more transparency,” he said.

Gruanlan said he’s been frustrated in his attempts to meet with board of regents chairman Richard Box, who, Grunlan said, agreed to meet with him several months ago but has canceled one appointment and left messages unreturned. “Everything is done in such a calculated way,” Grunlan said.

He said he doesn’t understand an environment that favors de-emphasizing research and asking professors to squeeze research in during the summer months.

“I am working with a Fortune 50 company that is paying me hundreds of thousands of dollars. I am not going to tell them that I will squeeze this in when I have time. The things we are working on could lead to hundreds of jobs, manufacturing plants, and sales,” Grunlan said. “People like me bring jobs to Texas. If people understood what we do, they absolutely would not damage what is going on.”

“I am supporting the state, the state is not supporting me,” he said. “And if the state of Texas doesn’t want me to donate to them, then I’m happy to go to another state. The government is effectively telling us they don’t want the money or jobs we create.”

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