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Perry’s higher ed appointments, reforms overshadowed by other crony capitalism charges

Image by Matt Mahurin
Image by Matt Mahurin

Since launching his presidential campaign, Gov. Rick Perry has been hit hard with charges that, as governor, he’s promoted a system of crony capitalism in Texas, but little attention has been paid to his financial ties to officials he’s appointed to oversee the state’s public universities, or or to those backing controversial reform proposals for higher education.

During the during the Republican primary debates, opposing candidates have criticized Perry for his executive order mandating a vaccine manufactured by a campaign donor and lobbied for by a former Perry chief of staff. His management of Texas Enterprise Fund — handing grants to companies that contributed to his reelection fund — and the job growth he has claimed as a result of the fund, have both prompted criticicism.

But his vision for remaking the state’s public universities, and his appointment of regents willing to carry it out — both of which have been controversial in Texas — have yet to become major issues in his campaign.

“One reason these appointments don’t attract much criticism is that many voters think that’s typical behavior by politicians. They’ve seen it in both parties,” said Dallas Morning News political columnist Wayne Slater. “Every governor in my memory here has had stories about how many donors get appointments.”

According to a report by from Texans for Public Justice, Perry’s campaign received $17,115,865 from 921 of his appointees from 2001 to 2010, accounting for over 20 percent of the total money he’s raised. As the Texas Independent reported last year, his appointees to university boards of regents were some of Perry’s most generous supporters.

Perry’s appointments to the University of Texas and Texas A&M regents are also less educated compared to boards of other large state university systems with fewer college degrees, on average, than their counterparts in California, Florida, Georgia and New York.

A joint committee of the Texas Legislature is considering reforms to the regent appointment process, and extra steps to vet officials to ensure they’re qualified.

Slater said that if Perry wins the Republican nomination, he could face charges that he’s too involved in the state’s higher education. “The main critique of Perry with regard to higher education is that the governor’s office has been too intrusive in trying to meddle in the affairs of universities for political reasons,” said Slater.

“There are stories that he pressured regents to resign because they backed his Republican opponent last year. More damaging are questions about how he is on the side of efforts to deemphasize research, following the recommendations of a conservative think tank,” said Slater.

As Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka wrote earlier this year, “Rick Perry is waging an undeclared war on higher education — in particular, on the state’s two flagship institutions, the University of Texas and his own alma mater, Texas A&M. He has delegated higher education policy to the Texas Public Policy Foundation.”

Perry’s appointees to the Texas A&M Board of Regents have ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative Austin think tank to which Perry donated the proceeds from his book “Fed Up!” and that, until recently, advocated a controversial reform package dubbed the “seven breakthrough solutions” for higher education.

Jeff Sandefer, author of the “seven solutions,” is also a member of the TPPF Board of Directors and is a major campaign donor to Perry. According to Texas Ethics Commission records, Sandefer has donated $712,739 to Texas GOP candidates, including $407,889 to Perry.

Texas A&M Regent Phil Adams, who donated over $340,000 to Perry’s campaigns, is also a member of the TPPF Board of Directors.

Another controversial figure viewed as having been put in place by Gov. Perry in order to push reforms is Rick O’Donnell, a former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, hired by UT as a special advisor to the Board of Regents, at a salary of $200,000 during a hiring freeze. He was fired not long after, as the Texas Independent reported, after accusing his UT System bosses of stymying his attempts to access data on faculty members’ salaries and course loads.

As the Texas Tribune reported, when Texas A&M Chancellor Mike McKinney retired, it was speculated that he was forced out because of his failure to swiftly implement the Perry-backed reforms. Emails revealed that the chancellor had been pressured by other regents, and members of TPPF, to implement reforms. An email to an A&M regent from Sandefer’s father was critical of McKinney’s inability to implement the “seven solutions.”

Even while former backers move away from the “solutions,” they’re gaining popularity with GOP leaders across the country. In Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott is considering similar higher ed reforms aimed at lowering tuition and applying business principles to award degrees more efficiently.

“Perry’s involvement in higher education reform isn’t an issue for Republican primary voters because they agree with him,” said Mark Jones, head of the political science department at Rice University. “They see academia as being elitist in their ivory towers wasting the tax payers money on frivolous research.”

So while critics in Texas say those efficiency-based reforms threaten the very thing that’s made the state’s public universities great, Perry’s unlikely to face much criticism for his views on higher ed from an opponent within his own party.

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