The firing of University of Texas System special adviser Rick O'Donnell sends a message to Gov. Rick Perry from the legions of University of Texas supporters: Don't meddle with UT.
O'Donnell lost his $200,000-a-year job last week after angering some state lawmakers.
In 2009, lawmakers made research a key part of a plan to boost the profiles of Texas universities. But O'Donnell, a former senior fellow for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, had argued that university research is harmful to good teaching.
O'Donnell and Jeff Sandefer, a Perry adviser on higher education and campaign contributor, had argued that much of such academic research is pointless and that universities would be better served with less tenured faculty, the Austin American-Statesman reported in Sunday's editions.
About three weeks ago, the 206,000 members of The Ex-Students' Association at the University of Texas at Austin waged an email campaign to urge regents to "rise above the politics of the moment" and focus on the mission of research and teaching.
"That's an interesting ploy, to make those two guys be the evil ones," Perry, a former student of UT archrival Texas A&M University, told the American-Statesman at the time. "The fact is that's a distraction. There's no there there."
But such UT backers as major Republican Party donor B.J. "Red" McCombs told UT System Regents Chairman Gene Powell, a San Antonio developer and Perry appointee, that it was time "to cool the current wave of rhetoric" and that "enlightened supporters of the university know that we must have a healthy balance of research and teaching."
Last week, major UT and GOP supporter Peter O'Donnell Jr. -- no relation to the ousted adviser -- told the newspaper, "I think the Board of Regents needs to formally adopt a policy that recognizes the importance of university research, to let people know what they're for and what they're not for."
Meanwhile, Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed says the governor "appreciates everyone's interest" in the debate over the mission of higher education. Perry continues to push for universities to lower the costs of obtaining a college education and has renewed a call for a four-year tuition freeze, she said. Perry also has "asked the Legislature to explore outcomes-based funding, which would tie some state funding to university graduation rates, rather than just enrollment," she said.