The (Texas higher ed) empire strikes back; O’Donnell out

As noted in today’s Daily Reading, the Texas higher education establishment finally managed to claim a scalp.

Here is advisor Rick O’Donnell’s parting letter (well worth a read).

As a consultant without much real power (the Austin American Statesman‘s overblown and silly “shadow chancellor” rhetoric notwithstanding), O’Donnell was always going to be in a tenuous position once administrators perceived him as raising questions about two sacred cows in the higher education establishment: Research and Academic Governance.

The higher education establishment was quick to frame O’Donnell’s questions about the value of research vis-à-vis other priorities as merely an attack on research — and those charges stuck for whatever reason (more on this below). The charges themselves are easy enough to explain. It’s hardly surprising that the higher education establishment really wanted to deflect scrutiny from its research practices, about which the general (taxpaying and tuition-paying) public knows very little. As someone who put in the time to get a Ph.D. from a research university and who maintains some interest in academia (while working in private industry), I can certainly understand that many university administrators at major research universities would prefer that the taxpaying and tuition-paying public not come to understand that undergrads at those institutions aren’t, in most cases, being taught by highly celebrated research professors, but instead (at the lower levels) by graduate students not much older than the undergrads themselves, sometimes in cavernous lecture halls.

As someone who might question whether the higher-education research-first status quo serves undergraduates, their parents (who have seen tuition bills skyrocket; academia and government are about the only two institutions that don’t respond to economic downturns), or taxpayers all that well, O’Donnell was going to be on shaky ground from the start. The fact that O’Donnell DID seem inclined to question that status quo — and that the mere governor of the state thought the questions worthy of consideration — also had to rankle the higher education establishment, which is not accustomed to scrutiny from public officials, or taxpayers, or even tuition-paying parents for the most part. Said administrators always cling to the notion of Academic Governance, which they present as necessary to preserve academic freedom so that institutions of higher learning can do their jobs (and which really is code for, “you elected officials and parents and taxpayers can just butt out, because we have Ph.Ds and know best how to spend your money and educate your children”).

The remaining question for me is why the state’s political media carried so much water for the higher education establishment, with so much one-sided reporting on the matter. So many stories were consistently framed poorly (Perry higher ed appointee hates research! Perry higher ed apppointee is shadow chancellor! Perry higher ed consultant screwed up a footnote once!) and without much balance (Are research and undergrad education in good balance? Is there too much emphasis on research for too little payoff? Who is teaching undergrads at the state’s larger research universities? Is there too much administrative overhead? These questions didn’t generally make it into the O’Donnell hit pieces). Why?

The best explanation I can come up with is some combination of the following:

  • O’Donnell arrived on the scene with some thoughts on higher education very different from those of the media’s normal sources inside higher education (who pushed back, effectively).
  • O’Donnell was perceived as a close associate of both Gov. Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, neither of whom can be called “favs” of the Texas political media.
  • Most nonacademics — including the state’s political media — simply don’t have a great understanding of undergraduate life at a major research university, and thus never grasped that raising questions about competing priorities (research versus undergraduate education, for example, or trying to measure the return on investment of research) is not merely an “attack” on research.

Still, that combination of factors isn’t a particularly satisfying explanation of how the Texas political media approached this story. So maybe it’s worth outsourcing to our smart readers — Is there some explanation for the media’s behavior that I’ve missed above? Please leave a comment.

4 Responses to “The (Texas higher ed) empire strikes back; O’Donnell out”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Must Engage for Balance says:

    Yes, I heard a great explanation for it yesterday on the Tribune’s podcast: TPPF, O’Donnell, and Sandefer all refused comment, turned down opportunities to publish a guest column, etc.

    Listen starting at 7:30:

  2. Evan says:

    Fair point, that’s why we already linked to the TribCast earlier today.

    As posted there: “Fair point — but aren’t reporters obligated to present both sides fairly? At times, the Tribune did attempt to present the other side, but most other media outlets didn’t even try.”

  3. Must Engage for Balance says:

    OK, but how do you know those other entities did not engage or attempt to engage in the same way? The only reason we know that about the Tribune at that level is the podcast. Sure, writers post that “XYZ declined comment” sometimes, but we really don’t know the games of disengagement played behind the scenes on either side. Are you suggesting that in the absence of evidence otherwise (like the Tribune did), that we should always assume a biased media rather than a manipulative non-respondent?

    I would argue that politicians of all ilks (and think tanks and politicos and whoever else you want to throw in there) know that not engaging the media can be powerful in its own right. It can cultivate the perception they are being treated unfairly. It allows them to see if the heat just passes over and the story goes away. But I just don’t know if I agree that all those entities aren’t trying.

    Then again, their reporter bureaus are getting sparse, and it be be easier to talk to those that are willing to and move on to the next story.

  4. Kevin says:

    ** I heard a great explanation for it yesterday on the Tribune’s podcast: TPPF, O’Donnell, and Sandefer all refused comment, turned down opportunities to publish a guest column, etc. **

    Here’s what amuses me about Evan Smith’s podcast performance…

    In that podcast, he heaps praise on Reeve Hamilton — literally gushes over what a fantastic job he did with this story. But at the same time, there is this “it” that requires explanation in the podcast. The IT being the question of the one-sided reporting (and, as noted above, poorly framed reporting in many instances). Smith seemed fairly animated (and a touch defensive) when talking about that.

    To respond to one of Smith’s points that, IMO, misframes the criticism — I don’t think anybody is trying to turn O’Donnell into a martyr. That’s certainly not the point of this post or the various comments on links we put up previously. Rather, it’s simply to ask why the reporting was so one-sided and so poorly framed (Shadow chancellor? “Rumors” that O’Donnell was brought in to fire top administration? Seriously, these are things that made it into some of the state’s leading news publications?)

    Ultimately, I don’t find it compelling for news organizations to frame stories poorly and unfairly and then to blame someone else for not being a good source — that to me is conceding the point that the journalism should/could have been better (yes!). I can’t speak to the O’Donnell/TPPF media strategy or if there even WAS a strategy, but they may well have decided that late in the game, they weren’t going to lend credence to outlets that had already poorly framed the matter by playing ball with those outlets.

    I do think that if someone like me (a politics/media observer with some understanding of academia, sitting in Houston with no ties to UT or TPPF) can see that some perspectives are going entirely unrepresented day after day as this “controversy” played out, then surely trained professional editors and journalists ought to be able to. The American model of journalism TELLS us they should be able to, right? So how hard might it have been to find some folks to talk about research versus teaching in major research universities, even if nobody at TPPF would play ball. VERY hard apparently. Much harder than simply speculating recklessly about shadow chancellors and firing administrators and getting alumni orgs all riled up.

    Seriously, THIS made it into the latest “news” story from Hearst Austin:

    Observers speculated O’Donnell was brought in to “bring UT to heel” to the seven solutions, and rumors surfaced that regents tried to fire…

    At the risk of Evan Smith hyperventilating that I’m trying to turn O’Donnell into a martyr, I’ll just ask from a media-criticism perspective — Who are these unnamed observers and what are their interests? Rumors from unnamed sources are presented as legitimate news? Seriously? This is but another illustration of the problems with much of the reporting on this matter.

    Now, if we want to ditch the American model of journalism for, say, the British model — in which stories are framed with something of a perspective, and more friendly/ideological sources tend to find their way into certain publications (so the Telegraph’s presentation is very different than the Guardian’s, for example), I won’t tell you I’m entirely opposed. But I don’t think Hearst Austin or Texas Tribune have adopted the Brit model.

    ** Are you suggesting that in the absence of evidence otherwise (like the Tribune did), that we should always assume a biased media rather than a manipulative non-respondent? **

    I’m suggesting that blaming someone else for your news organization’s poor framing and lack of balance in reporting is something of a cop out. I know a veteran journo by the name of Steve Miller in Houston who goes all out to get subjects of stories to comment, or to find suitable surrogates, or to find SOME way to present their perspective. Because that’s how true pros operate! When coverage breaks down and that doesn’t happen, I think it’s worthwhile asking why (rather than assuming bias or anything else).

Leave A Comment...

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>