The LBJ School of Public Affairs announced this week Thomas O’Donnell as the inaugural director for the new LBJ Washington Center.

In the past, O’Donnell has worked in the White House, the U.S. Senate and the Human Rights Campaign.

“My goal is to create an outpost for UT at Washington D.C.,” O’Donnell said in a statement. 

Beninning in fall 2015, the LBJ School will provide an 18-month federal policy master’s degree curriculum, which will involve six months of graduate school coursework at the Washington Center and an opportunity to be involved in federal policy making.

“Our goal is to follow what President Lyndon B. Johnson once dreamed, which is to involve people from Texas and other parts of the country who want to contribute to public policy,” O’Donnell said.

In addition, O’Donnell said the Washington Center will provide this platform of student engagement in public policy by pursuing extended research, workshops and speaker series, among other activities.

“We want to produce more public leaders at a federal level,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell served as a U.S. Senate chief of staff, managing both national and state offices and as a liaison to the White House and executive branch.

“We are pleased to have such an experienced and proven professional lead our Washington Center and join us in empowering the next generation of leaders to take on national leadership roles,” said Robert Hutchings, dean of the LBJ School, in a statement. “At this time of great change around the world and growing concern about the effectiveness of government, the LBJ Washington Center represents our call to action to advance a new generation of skilled and committed leaders. [O’Donnell] will be essential to the execution of that call to action.”

O’Donnell said the LBJ Washington Center will train future policy makers by playing an open role in the national policy discourse and debate.

“After 20 years in the federal public policy arena, I understand the need for aspiring young policy professionals to be equipped not only with solid theoretical thinking, but also with practical policy skills,” O’Donnell said.

Last Wednesday, Michael O’Donnell, associate vice chancellor of the UT System, testified before the Senate Higher Education Committee on SB 496, a bill by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. SB 496 would take the power of final approval for “capital projects” (large construction projects) from the hands of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and put it in the hands of the UT System Board of Regents. Yesterday, that bill passed the Texas Senate.

If SB 496, passes the House and becomes law, then the Board of Regents will have the authority to approve capital building projects across the UT System. On the surface, this shift of power is not dramatic. “Authorizing” a project is not the same as funding it, a task which will still fall to the Legislature, and, indirectly, to individual universities’ development teams, which must raise supplemental funds from donors. The bill won’t empower individual institutions to propose new building projects, as the regents already vet each institution’s list of proposed capital projects before they reach the THECB and Legislature. That is an arguably important step for the board to take, given the number of institutions in the UT System vying for funds.

Mostly, SB 496 is a bill that eliminates the bureaucratic redundancy of having to get building projects approved by the Board of Regents and then again by the THECB. But it just might empower the Board of Regents to make more deliberate choices about the way the UT System’s 16 campuses grow.

Also yesterday, the students of UT professor Larry Speck’s Architecture and Society class — this columnist included — took a test, which included an essay question asking students to discuss the ways a residential environment the student had lived in shaped their college experience.

The question was a way for students to demonstrate that they had done the reading and connected the principles they encountered to their everyday lives. But their answers may also be collected for research on the way students interact with their environment  — provided they signed the release passed out at the beginning of class.

Richie Gill, a Plan II senior, used responses to this test question from past semesters to identify how “socially successful” students were in a particular dorm. He also examined the effect of particular residential environments on student GPA. What did his holistic review of 12 of the 14 dorms on campus find?

The best dorm for a freshman student is — drum roll, please — the humble Moore-Hill, completed in 1956. Its rooms, at 190 sq. feet, are less than half the size of those in UT’s newest dormitory, Duren Hall, which was built in 2007. The less-than-luxurious quarters of Moore-Hill prompt students to leave their rooms and meet other Longhorns, while the wealth of amenities in Duren kept people from moving — literally and figuratively — out of their comfort zones, which Gill’s findings suggest affected not only their social lives but their GPAs as well. When Gill compared a student’s predicted GPA (based on a number of factors, including the student’s high school GPA and his or her parents’ level of education) with the GPA they actually achieved at UT, students in more social dorms had the most positive difference between their predicted and actual GPA. 

Of course, Gill’s project is just a senior thesis, not a fully-formed scientific study, and interpreting essay question answers is an inherently subjective process. But the results of the project, which are by no means conclusive, do suggest that we  should be more thoughtful about the buildings on our campus, as the designs of those buildings might affect student success. All of us — students, regents and UT administrators — care about the success of students on this campus. In the past decade, we’ve seen the expansion of the UT campus give us buildings like Duren, which is neither the most affordable nor the most effective dorm for bettering the student experience. Meanwhile the best dormitory for students on campus was completed in the mid-1950s.

So, since the regents may soon have more control over the type of buildings built on UT System campuses, they should demand buildings that make a difference in students’ lives. The University isn’t about to stop growing. We should make sure it grows in a direction beneficial to students. 

Wright is a Plan II junior from San Antonio.

O'Donnell Releases New Faculty Analysis

Rick O'Donnell, former special advisor to the UT System Board of Regents, released an analysis report that divides the University's professors into categories of teaching loads versus the research revenue they bring.

O'Donnell, who reached a $70,000 settlement in exchange for agreeing to not sue the System last month, wrote in the report that most of the professors at the University fall under "dodgers" and "coasters", who have low teaching loads and generate little research revenue.

"Dodgers are the least productive faculty who bring in no external research funding, teach few students," according to the report.

There are 1,748 "dodgers" at the University from which 58 percent are tenure track and teach 71 students per year and bring no external funding, according to the report. Total number of professors at the University is a little more than 3000, according to the report. 

"To put this in perspective, if UT has no "Dodgers", teaching loads for the next lowest productive faculty (Coasters) would need to increase by an average of 97 students a year, giving the university annual savings of $573 million," according to the report.

Texas Coalition for Higher Education responded Wednesday and said the report by O'Donnell does not reflect anything new. O'Donnell's point about firing faculty members to save money has been rejected by the members of the Coalition in the past, according to a press release.

"The data that the Boards of Regents of The University of Texas and Texas A&M Systems have made public is now being misused to diminish the national stature of our state’s premiere public institutions," according to the press release. "Texas A&M and UT Austin are premiere national universities generating millions in economic impact and educating the doctors, teachers, engineers and scholars who will lead our state in the future. Every $1 invested into Texas A&M or UT Austin returns $18 to the Texas economy."


Read The Daily Texan on Thursday for further information on this developing story.

O’Donnell’s settlement with the UT System

After months of controversy surrounding the hiring of Rick O’Donnell, former director of Colorado’s higher education department, as a special adviser to the UT Board of Regents, the UT System reached a settlement with O’Donnell to avoid a lawsuit against it, according to The Daily Texan.

Soon after the System hired O’Donnell in February at a $200,000 salary, concern grew regarding the hiring process, O’Donnell’s salary and his views on academic research. O’Donnell’s employment was terminated in April.

As part of the settlement agreement, the System sent O’Donnell a glowing letter signed by Regents Chairman Gene Powell and has agreed to pay him $70,000. Neither the System nor O’Donnell has admitted fault.

But the situation could have been almost entirely avoided had the System been more transparent in its hiring process. O’Donnell’s radical views on research and his affiliation with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit conservative think tank, understandably drew considerable controversy. Additionally, why the System agreed to pay O’Donnell an exorbitant six-figure salary amid significant budget cuts and hiring freezes is bewildering.

Now the System is paying $70,000 to erase its mistake. Where will the money come from? After repeated unreturned calls to UT System spokesman Anthony de Bruyn, we still don’t know. We just hope taxpayers aren’t footing the bill.

Members of the blue-grass folk inspired Navasota String Band, Mateo Clarke, Joseph McGill, Ryan O’Donnell and Zach McLean, jam out on their string instruments by the 360 bridge. (Photo courtesy of Navasota String Band)

Turn off the electricity and a majority of musicians would lose their ability to make their sound resilient. You can’t say the same for The Navasota String Band. Their instruments resonate, even without the amps and electronics, accompanied by all four distinguishable voices.

Mateo Clarke, Ryan O’Donnell, Zach McLean and Joseph “Juicebag” McGill are the eclectic musicians who make up the Navasota String Band. They draw their inspiration from roots, blues and old time bluegrass-inspired folk and artists like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Norman Blake and Old Crow Medicine Show.

“I like making people realize they can appreciate a banjo and fiddle,” McLean said.

O’Donnell performs lead vocals, guitar and harmonica, seemingly the lead of the group with his charming smile and energetic performance. Clarke plays mandolin, fiddle and backup vocals; he began the violin at 7 years old. McLean plays banjo and has for four years, seldom stopping his fiddling only to answer a few questions. And McGill, who seldom surrenders to any seriousness, plays bass fiddle, an instrument he first took up at age 13.

Two of the four men graduated from UT: Clarke in 2011, and O’Donnell in 2010, Clarke with a double major in Latin American studies and economics and O’Donnell in political science and French. They didn’t meet in Austin, though. O’Donnell, Clarke and McLean all graduated from Boerne High School, a town northwest of San Antonio.

McGill is the newest member of the band and the biggest character: thick framed glasses, full lumberjack beard, button-up vest, tie and all. Standing at his upright, plucking hard at the thick strings of his fiddle, Juicebag has been playing with the band for only three months but already seems comfortable with the other members that have a history together. He started with the trio after playing a show with them as a member of another group named “Uncle Lady,” which he’s still a part of.

“We string musicians get around,” O’Donnell explained.

The other three have been together since October 2009. They recall playing in Spain and France when Clarke and McLean went to visit O’Donnell during his year voyage overseas after graduating. They remember playing in the metro stations, bars and clubs in Paris and for the protestors in Barcelona that had consolidated to demonstrate against political corruption.

“We played everywhere we went. In bars and in the streets from Barcelona to Istanbul,” O’Donnell said.

Their memories together are plentiful and their passion for music is eternal. They’re traditional but unique and enjoy making the listener a part of their music, mentally or physically: they handed me two metal spoons before they began to play, explaining which fingers to hold onto them with and showing me how to slap them on my knee to go along to the beat.

“There’s so much energy that comes out of [the music], with no electricity involved,” O’Donnell said.

Their full sound reverberates through the wood that’s shaking underneath them in their living room, walls lined with guitars, banjos and various posters plastered on the sky blue paint, as they play songs like “Best Behavior,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Waterloo Blues,” stomping their feet to the beat when the break in the songs permit.

The four musicians have dreams for what lies ahead, but as of now, the fate of the band rests on love.

O’Donnell, who during his year overseas fell in love with the first woman he met in France, has decided to return with her in July, to live. He says the only way he’ll stay is if Obama puts them on his playlist.

The fate of The Navasota String Band is still undetermined, but for now, the focus never leaves the music. The band’s goals for the immediate future include finishing their album The Seed and solidifying their bond as friends and musicians.

The Seed will be their second album and is scheduled for release at the end of April. With the heart that these performers put into their music, it’s guaranteed to be a pleasure as long as you can appreciate what bona fide musicians sound like.

Printed on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 as: Folk band resonates with string acoustics

Denis O’Donnell takes his place behind the bar at Hole-In-The-Wall on Guadalupe for his final shift at the loacal haunt. With the help of his friends and other Hole-In-The-Wall colleagues, O’Donnell will open up a new bar in East Austin, The White Horse, with co-owner Nathan Hill.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

The smiling, bearded face of bartender Denis O’Donnell will still greet you by name when you enter the bar.

But it won’t be at Hole in the Wall, the bar at West Dean Keeton Street and Guadalupe Street frequented by students.

Come Friday, O’Donnell and co-owner Nathan Hill will open the doors of The White Horse, the newest addition to the East Side bar scene.

The opening celebration, complete with a live white horse, will be the culmination of three years of searching for a venue and funding to start their own venture.

“I would hope that people on that side of town have the opportunity to walk into our bar and be romantically overwhelmed with bluegrass, jazz and the dim lights of a honky-tonk, with people two-stepping and twirling around on the floor that is so culturally different than what’s happening over there,” O’Donnell said.

Well-versed in management and bartending, O’Donnell has performed on stage since he was 15 and worked behind the bar at Hole in the Wall for almost four years, serving as the day manager before leaving in November to work on The White Horse.

O’Donnell said he will miss Hole in the Wall, but the owner Will Tanner gave his blessing not only in words but in donated sound equipment and the “that’a boy” they needed to venture out.

“I didn’t realize that this was my dream right off until I started working [at Hole],” O’Donnell said. “I’ve always played in bands since I was a young boy, and I’ve spent most of my twenties running other people’s business.”

Hill, the former manager of Hole, met O’Donnell when they were working in management for Kerbey Lane Cafe. From then on, it was more or less fate.

“We both worked really well together. We had similar goals and management style: that if you treat people well, they’ll work well for you,” Hill said. “If you meet Denis and he said, ‘Do you want to open a bar together,’ you say ‘Yes.’”

The new bar will present a mix of musical styles from Delta blues and bluegrass on Wednesdays to two-stepping on Thursdays and Fridays. On Saturday, they will look “outside the box” to draw talent from around the country.

With the help of friends, The White Horse has been transformed from the former Club La Trampa. By the time it’s done, it will be outfitted with antique lights, pool tables and a bar that stretches across the length of a long wall. A green room for musicians and an outdoor patio are also to come and a trailer parked outside will serve traditional Mexican tacos.

And as for the drinks, well, they’re what patrons of Hole have come to expect from the creator of the “Shitty Lemonade.”

“We’re going to be cheap,” O’Donnell said. “Our place will be competitive in drinks and everybody will get a taste for the fabulous T.W. Samuels that will flow like crazy as our wild ass will be walking the floor with a bottle of whiskey and getting everybody crazy about the place.”

With a lot of popular spots on the East Side, the new owners are sure they’ll offer something which lives up to Austin’s reputation for live music.

“We wish that culture down there embraces this new alien honky-tonk, seedy, honest bar that remembers who you are and what you had to drink,” O’Donnell said. “There will be no arrogant jerk behind the bar — it will be a true place of community and, hopefully, a bastion of culture that keeps people wanting to move to this city for live music.”

O’Donnell, who plays full time with a band called El Pan, will keep his ties with Hole, where his band will continue to play, and said he looks forward to seeing those regulars on his stage as well.

The concepts of the two bars are different, but O’Donnell said the band in the corner will be passive enough so that people can still enjoy conversation and not be chased out of the room. It will also rely heavily on bi-weekly and weekly resident bands that will keep people coming back.

“Loyalty is a two-way street in this business and we’re looking to take care of this band in a way that most people haven’t seen,” he said. “Your commitment to us and having this grow means that your CD is in the jukebox and your retail [goods] are in a kitschy retail counter that we sell eight days a week.”

As for Hole, someone will have to fill the space left behind the bar and both men agree Rio Norris will be the one to hold the reins and surpass the standard for quality O’Donnell and Hill brought to the role.

“It’s an honor to step in Denis’ shoes. I hope I don’t let him down,” Norris said.

And although O’Donnell said he expects The White Horse will draw a new crowd, his regulars from Hole in the Wall, such as Dillon Tulk, insist they’ll be going across town to see the new place.

“Denis is a phenomenal musician and an amazing bartender. He’s just that good at what he’s doing,” said Tulk, who has celebrated his birthday at Hole for the past four years. “It’s the end of an era.”

Hill, who deals more with the numbers side of the bar, said together they’ve built up some great clientele and he hopes to see them on the other side of a bar that they own.

“I hope they embrace us,” O’Donnell said. “Everybody on that side of town better get used to the fact that I’m going to know every single person’s name that walks in that door and what they have to drink. And I’m going to be their bartender because I look forward to seeing their face when they walk in the door. That will set us apart.”

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: Loyal bar owner moves east

Former UT System adviser Rick O’Donnell published a report Wednesday that categorized UT professors based on teaching workloads and the amount of research revenue generated. The report segmented professors into five categories: “dodgers,” “coasters,” “sherpas,” “pioneers” and “stars.”

“The research university’s employment practices look remarkably like a Himalayan trek, where indigenous Sherpas carry the heavy loads so Western tourists can simply enjoy the view.”
— O’Donnell in his report.

“There can be many different approaches to closing the faculty productivity gap, but first, state policymakers, university boards and senior university leadership must acknowledge a significant gap even exists and not flinch from taking a hard look at the data.”
— O’Donnell in his report’s conclusion.

“The data that the Boards of Regents of the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems have made public is now being misused to diminish the national stature of our state’s premiere public institutions.”
— The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education in a response published after the release of O’Donnell’s report.

“[The report] is a dance remix of a bad song. It doesn’t appear that there is any new framework that’s helping to advance the discussion.”
— JJ Baskin, a member of the coalition’s executive committee, according to The Daily Texan.

“Frankly, it is insulting to the professors at UT to be categorized that way.”
— Baskin in response to the report, according to the Texan.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Rick O'Donnell | Daily Texan Staff

The University of Texas System will pay $70,000 as part of a settlement with a former Board of Regents adviser who officials say was planning to sue the system following his dismissal in April.

Former adviser Rick O’Donnell was employed from March to April and was dismissed by UT administrators following controversy over statements he made criticizing university research efforts. According to the terms of the settlement, the UT System will pay O’Donnell $70,000 and issue him a letter from the Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell stating O’Donnell was inaccurately portrayed by his critics.

“Much of what you were hired to do ... was, as you know, mischaracterized by some and the subject of controversy that was not of your making, a controversy that deflected attention from the mission of your important work,” Powell wrote in the letter.

O’Donnell indicated he had plans to sue if he was unable to reach a peaceful resolution with University officials, UT System Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Barry Burgdorf said in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman Monday.

“It was very clear that he was going to sue the UT System and he had the backing to do it,” Burgdorf said to the Statesman. “It would have cost me a lot more to defend that lawsuit and get it dismissed than we ended up paying.”

Under the settlement, neither O’Donnell or University officials will admit any wrongdoing and both parties agree not to take further legal action against one another.

Powell’s decision to hire O’Donnell on March 1 sparked much controversy as he was set to receive a $200,000 yearly salary during a period of budget cuts and hiring freezes in the UT System. The Board of Regents later shifted O’Donnell from his role of advising University administrators on efficiency and effective teaching techniques to a temporary position scheduled to end on Aug. 31.

O’Donnell’s affiliation with local think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation also received public criticism. In 2008, O’Donnell wrote a policy paper for the organization criticizing publicly funded academic research and claiming it has “few tangible benefits.”

“I looked at the return on scientific research as measured by available data such as income royalties and licenses on patents,” O’ Donnell said in a letter to the Board of Regents on March 25. “Whether we want the attention or not, it seems clear that questions on productivity, efficiency, and accountability for our research universities and research expenditures are being asked.”