Now Rises Zaffirini

In response to a fierce attack on higher education in Texas, a state senator from Laredo has become the University’s most vocal defender.

Illustration by Jody Hewgill

Two-hundred and thirty-seven miles southwest of The University of Texas Tower, within a mile of the I-35 southern terminus, on a one-way street cutting through the heart of Laredo, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, BA ’67, MS ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member and Distinguished Alumna, keeps her district office. A sign outside reads “Zaffirini Communications.” Laredoans used to see Zaffirini’s famous campaign truck parked there, blazoned with a Z, but no longer. A local gang, the zetas, have co-opted z for their nefarious branding purposes, so the suspect consonant had to be removed.

Without the Z-mobile out front, it’s easy to miss the two-story building. And yet, for the last eight months, this inconspicuous structure has been a hotspot in a statewide battle over the future of higher education.

Ever since a few UT System regents and the Texas Public Policy Foundation began exploring ways to upend the status quo at UT-Austin, Z, as she is known to supporters and Capitol insiders, has exerted a steady obstructive force. She was and remains the most vocal critic of the self-styled reformers who insist on dramatic and disruptive changes that could threaten the stature of UT. The proposals have included de-emphasizing research, separating research and teaching budgets, and awarding merit pay for faculty based solely on student evaluations.

As the last legislative session drew to a close, Zaffirini was named co-chair of a joint oversight committee on higher education formed in response to the public outcry over what many UT alumni see as dangerous regent meddling. Zaffirini intends to call her first committee hearing in September. The Alcalde recently sat down with the senator to ask her about the current higher education debate and how she would like it to change.

Editor’s Note: What follows is a fuller version of The Alcalde‘s interview with Sen. Zaffirini than what was printed in the September|October issue of the magazine.

Tim Taliaferro: Senator, is it accurate to say that you are opposed to the changes that Chairman Gene Powell and some of the UT regents are wanting to make to the System?

Judith Zaffirini: Not 100 percent. There are some things that I agree with. What I disagree with so vehemently is the strategy that has been employed. It has been a very negative approach, from my perspective, and it has caused great turmoil, great controversy, and great discomfort. I believe, unfortunately, that the name and stature of The University of Texas at Austin in particular and higher education in Texas generally have been tarnished.

TT: What has caused that?

JZ: The actions of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, in collaboration with some regents, and through the office of the governor of the state of Texas. And by “office,” I’m referring specifically to Gov. Perry’s staff members and emails that were exchanged (and that we have obtained copies of) between the governor’s staff, Jeff Sandefer and his father, Jakie, and specific regents.

TT: You’re referring to the “seven breakthrough solutions”?

JZ: I do not refer to them as “breakthroughs,” because they are not; or as “solutions,” because they haven’t identified a problem. I refer to them as proposals. The word “reform” implies its target is corrupt or broken. And higher education in Texas, or at the University of Texas, is not broken and is not corrupt. Now, do we need improvements? Absolutely. Do we need to strengthen higher education in Texas and at UT-Austin? Also absolutely. Nobody argues about that. But the problem with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Sandefers, and some of the recent regent appointees is that they came in with this negative attitude. They created a controversy. They arrived with hostility and with suspicion, drawing lines in the sand. You’re either with them, or they consider you against them. The more productive, more intelligent, more enlightened approach would have been to search for consensus.

TT: Where do you think there are areas of consensus?

JZ: There are many, many areas of agreement. Who disagrees that we need to improve productivity, transparency, efficiency, affordability, accessibility? The list goes on. We all agree, so why didn’t we start there? Why didn’t Gene Powell and the new regents reach out to the experts, to those who know better than they, and say, “Let us come together and try to improve together? What are your best ideas?” Instead they came in with a dictatorial message, with demands. And not dictates or demands that they themselves had defined but those defined by the Sandefers.

TT: Why do you think they did it that way?

JZ: Perhaps it was arrogance. Perhaps it was power-based. Perhaps they defined goals based on their stature and power and thought they could get things done. But, as I have been quoted as saying about Gov. Perry, he bit the giant.

TT: What do you mean by that that?

JZ: The giant is the alumni, who care about their beloved alma maters deeply, personally, and passionately—more than they care about his politics. The governor has been involved in other controversies, but they haven’t hurt him in the long-run. The Trans-Texas Corridor controversy, and his gubernatorial proclamation to require certain immunizations for 14-year-old girls both caused uproars, but they died down and went away. This time the alumni at UT and A&M are upset.

TT: Why is it that this has only become a controversy in the last eight months or so? Gov. Perry first endorsed these proposals at a meeting of the state’s regents in 2008.

JZ: What happened was, after the meeting in 2008, the regents more or less ignored the orders. They looked through them, evaluated them, and they may have gone through the motions of responding to requests for information and whatnot, but they didn’t embrace them. The only place where these seven proposals gained traction was at A&M. But you see it didn’t get play in the statewide media. The chancellor, Mike McKinney, was following some of the dictates but not fully. When the faculty at A&M became enraged, they didn’t realize how much McKinney had been protecting them. They didn’t realize how much he had not done, and how much pressure he was under from regents who agreed with the Sandefers. There are emails between, I believe, Jakie Sandefer and one of the A&M regents saying things such as, “We have to give Mike [McKinney, the chancellor] a deadline. We have to meet with him once a month, if not every two weeks. We have to tell him that we’re going to do this with or without him.” Can you imagine?

TT: Were you aware of all this at the time?

JZ: No! Absolutely not.

TT: So what is it you see is the danger in all of this?

JZ: The danger is that higher education in Texas can be a laughing stock at the national and international level. That the value of a degree from our best universities can be devalued. That we could perhaps even lose stature as a national research university. When A&M implemented some of these proposals, specifically the student-based evaluation of professors for merit pay, separating teaching from research, and measuring in dollars and cents the productivity of faculty and publishing red and black reports based on ridiculous criteria—that resulted in a letter of warning from the president of the Association of American Universities. The AAU is the gold standard in defining who is a national research university. Universities have to apply for membership and meet certain criteria. That letter was something very serious and detrimental to the stature and reputation of A&M.

TT: Is it your sense that one problem with these proposals that they fundamentally misunderstand what a research university is?

JZ: There are different criteria involved in defining national research university status, and they are counter in some ways to the proposals from the Texas Public Policy Foundation. For example, TPPF seems to scoff at research. Now, they are denying it, and they say now that they support it. If you look at their handbook for legislators, there’s a section on higher ed. One of the first recommendations is to prohibit the use of taxpayer money for university research. Well, how in the world could our universities either maintain Tier 1 status or acquire it if the state of Texas were to decide not to use taxpayer money for research? In their second section, the very last recommendation is to consider the pros, cons, and feasibility of placing universities under sunset.

TT: What does that mean?

JZ: State agencies are supposed to be placed under sunset review by the Texas Sunset Commission, I believe every 10 years. At the end of that investigation, the decision is supposed to be: what legislation should be filed and passed to improve the agency, or should the agency be “sunsetted”—terminated? Now, if you were enrolling at a university to get your undergraduate degree, would you enroll at one that was about to go under sunset? I don’t think so. And if you were the best and the brightest students of the state of Texas, would you choose a university that would be under sunset or would you choose to go out of state, where more enlightened people were in charge of higher education? That is just absolutely outrageous.

TT: What, though, is driving that? Surely the end is not to destroy the stature of higher education in Texas.

JZ: I don’t see how it can be considered a positive thing. And I don’t know their motivation. I don’t know these people.

TT: Is that part of what’s disconcerting to you in this to you and to other legislators? Here are these people who ride in and say they have all the answers?

JZ: Well, yes. But they love to call themselves outsiders and then to belittle those who call them outsiders.

TT: Why is that?

JZ: I can’t speak for them. My understanding, based only on media reports and heresay, is that Jeff Sandefer got crossways with UT-Austin’s school of business. Then he went over to St. Edward’s University, and he got crossways with them, too. I believe there was a lawsuit involved at that time. So then he formed his own school. Really, I believe that’s the best alternative for them. If they seem to have all the answers, why don’t they just get into the arena and compete? If they’re so convinced that their way is the right way, well then they should try to develop a model for others.

TT: How do you think The University of Texas at Austin did in this legislative session?

JZ: Not well. Higher education was slashed and burned. But UT-Austin was not singled out. That’s because there was no new source of revenue. And there will be repercussions.

TT: What will they be?

JZ: There will be fewer classes, bigger classes, fewer degree program offerings, and insufficient funding for financial aid. So there will be fewer students who can afford to go to the University of Texas at Austin. We also cut funding for research. Everything was cut, across the board. And higher education is expensive, but it is an investment. I do not believe it should be considered simply an expense—it should be considered an investment. Now, had the university officials been free to articulate their needs and the repercussions of a lower level of funding, they could have been more effective.

TT: Why didn’t they?

JZ: My understanding, from reliable sources, is that across the board, throughout Texas, higher education officials were instructed not to complain.

TT: By whom?

JZ: By the regents. My understanding is that this was not restricted to higher education but to all state agencies. Agency commissioners were instructed not to complain. And I know from private conversations, they were muzzled. There was a gag order. It was very, very obvious. Now, when you consider that the governor supported the cuts, did not want to raise taxes or consider new sources of revenue, such as gaming, and when you consider that he has appointed every member of every board of regents and of every agency commission, then you can see where that power comes from.

TT: Tell me about the creation of the joint oversight committee.

JZ: The Legislative Oversight Committee on higher education governance, excellence, and transparency.

TT: Exactly the one.

JZ: This new committee was given very specific areas of concern: the governance structure of state universities, health-related institutions, and university systems; the manner in which the governing boards and administrators of those institutions develop and implement major policy decisions, including the impartiality and adequacy of their processes; and any other matter relating to excellence, transparency, accountability, or efficiency. That is incredible. Also important, it says the committee shall make recommendations, including for legislative action, at the times the committee considers appropriate and shall make a biennial report in advance of each regular session. Now, what that means is, this committee is not going away.

TT: When can we expect a first hearing?

JZ: I hope in September. We want to bring in national organizations, people who know better than we do about higher education governance in general, who can come in and share best practices from other states with us. In no way is an investigation intended to result in hanging someone. I perceive this as an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. What I’m hoping is that we will be able to find areas of agreement and be constructive in addressing the priority issues of higher education in an impartial and thorough way, without any one group or any one person dictating the future of higher education in Texas.

TT: You mean like the TPPF?

JZ: I don’t know the Sandefers. I don’t know Michael Quinn Sullivan, although he is my Facebook friend. I don’t know other than a few members of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. But I do know this: it is wrong—absolutely, positively wrong—for any person or any group or any organization to hijack the higher education agenda of Texas and try to dictate or change its direction. That is wrong. Do they deserve a seat at the table? If they want one. But the table is not theirs. That’s what was happening. They set the table, and they were the only guests.

TT: Do you think they intended to cause controversy?

JZ: I had dinner with my counterpart, Rep. Dan Branch, and the UT chancellor, the A&M chancellor, the chair of the A&M board, and Gene Powell, and during the conversation the A&M chancellor said, “You know we’ve been doing this since 2008 and reporters haven’t questioned me about it. All of a sudden, I’m getting reporters’ calls, and I don’t know why.” And I said, “I do. Because I’m sending them to you. Every time a reporter calls about UT, I say it’s not UT. This started at A&M.”

TT: Why did it become a controversy at UT?

JZ: I lay it at the feet of Gene Powell.

TT: Why?

JZ: No. 1, his unfortunate metaphor of the Bel Aires and the Cadillacs. His defense of using that metaphor only made it worse, when he said, “Oh, no. UT-Austin will offer the Cadillac and those other universities will offer the lesser models.” And of course then the people at the other universities were enraged. Then his questionable hiring of Rick O’Donnell—questionable in so many ways. Hiring him before the job description was written or the job posted. Hiring him during a hiring freeze. Offering him a salary of $200,000, giving him the title of special advisor to the board, without a vote of the board, and with a job description that paralleled the chancellor’s. And my understanding is that Powell promised O’Donnell that once the legislature left town, he would get promoted to vice chancellor and his salary increased to $300,000. Now, that was perceived as a slap in the face to the chancellor and interpreted by many, myself included, as part of a strategy to fire the chancellor.

TT: What were your reactions to the rumors that Chancellor Cigarroa and UT president Bill Powers were going to be fired?

JZ: UT-Austin and the UT System are blessed with two impressive leaders. And others, but I single out these two. Dr. Cigarroa, our chancellor, and Bill Powers, our president. Now there are others like them, but these two in particular, in the legislature, are admired, respected, appreciated, trusted, and I would go so far as to say loved. I had one senator tell me after meeting the chancellor, “You told me I would like him. You didn’t tell me I was going to fall in love with him.” Some of the senators who have been most critical of UT in the past have been most supportive of these two. And for the first time in a long time, we have both a president and a chancellor who have this kind of stature in the legislature. They should have been at their most effective best in this session, and instead they wasting time putting up with this controversy, answering questions and attacks, dealing with the suspicion and the resulting low morale. From my perspective, as an alumna, that is disgusting. From my perspective as a legislator and as chair of the higher education committee, it is outrageous and irresponsible.

TT: Were you in close contact with any of the regents during the session?

JZ: I don’t recall one regent talking to me about funding. Not one. And I’m not only chair of higher education, I’m also on the finance committee and on the higher education subcommittee on finance.

TT: That seems a little strange.

JZ: Very strange.

TT: So where do you think this goes?

JZ: I’m hoping that with the leadership of the oversight committee we can turn this negative into a positive. And I hope that we have stopped or will stop these shenanigans orchestrated by the Sandefers and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. I’m so proud of the Texas Exes for standing tall and speaking out about these issues, and I’m equally proud of the Chancellor’s Council. And I’m delighted by the new Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education that organized recently. The problem is that UT is at the forefront of this, but it is not the sole victim. All of our universities are under attack by this group.

TT: Do you think this has national implications?

JZ: Absolutely.

TT: What are they?

JZ: Our stature as national research universities. Our evaluations by their academic peers. The perspective and opinions of the best faculty members and the best students, who have to decide where to go to learn and to teach and to do research. If I were a professor who loved to teach and loved to research and looking for a place to go, two years ago I would have said Texas. Today, because of this controversy, I wouldn’t be so sure.

TT: Is there any area where you and the UT administration don’t see eye-to-eye in this whole debate?

JZ: I would hope that they would be more outspoken. In fact, I was most chagrined that there weren’t more university presidents speaking out. The media went to the chancellor, who answered questions, and to President Powers, who answered some. But where were the other presidents? And I was most chagrined when none of the presidents, nor the chancellor, brought any of these issues to my attention. I heard about them from other senators.

What bothers me is that there are some people who are blaming Bill Powers for stirring this controversy. Bill Powers had nothing to do with it. This controversy erupted because of the missteps of Gene Powell. It alarmed alumni and they got organized. Until then it had just been one side taking action, and behind closed doors. How ironic that those who are demanding transparency seem to be the least transparent.

And somehow, Gene Powell continues to make missteps, his most recent one being the equally outrageous settlement with Rick O’Donnell, when there was absolutely no reason to settle. None. He was on probation. His work had been denigrated publicly, specifically his article about research. Then his letter to a regent that reflected rank insubordination. There were many reasons to fire him, but no reason for settling. What’s very difficult to understand was why there was no non-disparaging clause in that contract. There are many who believe that there wasn’t so that Rick O’Donnell would still be free to attack the University. I had first assumed that the settlement was hush money, until suddenly he dropped his bombs of attack and made himself available to the media. In his statement, he attacked Dr. Cigarroa, President Powers, and me. What many of us now believe is that the settlement was reached so that the details of Rick O’Donnell’s agreement with Gene Powell would not be made public, including who recommended O’Donnell. Was it Jeff Sandefer? Was it the governor?

TT: Do you think that Chairman Powell and the regents are going to be receptive to your work and the work of the oversight committee?

JZ: I would hope so. They’re welcome to participate if they want to.


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