Monday, August 31, 2009

Welcome students!

Vision 1920 celebrates the first day of class for the Fall Semester of academic year 2009-2010. We welcome the Fish to Aggieland and are glad to see our returning students back in College Station.

You may notice that over the summer there have been a few changes at TAMU. Some of your professors may seem unhappy with recent events, but here at Vision 1920 we hope that you'll just think of it as part of your "other education".

President Loftin corrects the record

President Loftin looks back on the summer in an interview with the Batt, and uses the opportunity to set the record straight:
Contrary to statements by local media, Provost Jeff Vitter was not asked to resign, Loftin said.

"He came to the conclusion that because of the leadership change that happened here it was really appropriate for him to go back to the faculty again," he said. "We met several times my first week here, for lengthy periods, to work on issues and ultimately he made the decision not to continue as provost."
Vision 1920 never really believed he was asked.

A voice from the past BoR

On Sunday, the Dallas Morning News had a letter from former Regent Douglas DeCluitt
The recent turmoil within the Texas A&M University community springs from a basically unstable organizational structure. It has been unstable from its beginning, but has managed to be somewhat effective because, in the earlier days at least, the chancellor was an academic who was careful to not encroach upon the turf of the president of Texas A&M. The president ran the university.

It is Texas A&M University that has the potential to become a Top 10 public university, not the Texas A&M system.

It makes no sense to have such a large and dominant part of the system report to a supervisor. The president of TAMU should report directly to the board of regents rather than through the filter of a chancellor.

The chancellor could also report to the regents and supervise the other institutions of the system, or the chancellor could report to the president of TAMU and supervise the other institutions of the system.

This is an ideal time to make this organizational change. The new organization would demonstrate the institution's desire for strong and meaningful leadership, thereby enhancing the possibility of attracting outstanding candidates for president.
Vision 1920 fears that Mr DeCluitt is out of touch with the priorities of his successors on the BoR. They've already demonstrated our plans with respect to strong and meaningful leadership from the President, Provost, and chair of the CPI.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Something for the shared services panels to consider

Despite their landlocked location, students at Texas A&M University can attend courses while they lie on a virtual beach at the university’s new “Second Life” campus. The university has opened dedicated learning spaces in the three-dimensional world for instructor and student use in time for the fall semester, which starts Monday (Aug. 31).
Vision 1920 sees tremendous budget savings potential here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Texas A&M clearly didn't have enough direct connections to Gov. Perry, with only Chancellor McKinney (former chief of staff), Regent Jones (former General Council for the Governor) etc. Today we learn
Gov. Rick Perry's former chief of staff began serving this month as a special adviser to the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents -- a new position -- at a $260,000 annual salary.

Jay Kimbrough, who finished as the governor's chief of staff in July, has bounced between the governor's office and the A&M System, giving critics of the Aggie governor's influence at his alma mater more ammunition.
Some are upset that a new position was created for Mr. Kimbrough at a time when budget cuts are being demanded at Texas A&M. But Kimbrough used to make $300,000/year with the System, so we're saving $40K/year.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bluff or ABET

KBTX notes that the Qatar campus just received accreditation from ABET... but Murano claimed this as an accomplishment in February:
Engineering programs at Texas A&M's campus in the Middle East have earned a high honor, but it's one the former university president seems to have claimed had already happened.

A&M announced Tuesday that the four programs based in Qatar have been accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET.

“We are pleased that Texas A&M’s Qatar campus has been accredited by ABET, which validates something that we have known for a long time — our Qatar engineering graduates are of the highest caliber and will be a part of the next generation of Aggie leaders,” said A&M Interim President Bowen Loftin in a press release Tuesday.

But the accreditation that came Tuesday was something former Texas A&M president Elsa Murano claimed had happened under her watch.

In the now-infamous self-evaluation which led to low marks from A&M System Chancellor Mike McKinney, Murano wrote as a major accomplishment that she "successfully obtained accreditation for our four engineering programs at our campus in Qatar from ABET. This opens the door for the establishment of a full-fledged graduate program and adds great credibility and prestige to our Qatar campus and its graduates."

Chancellor McKinney noted, among other things, that Murano had poor honesty and integrity, and sources with knowledge of the Murano evaluation tell News 3 her statement on ABET accreditation was a factor in the divide that eventually led to Murano resigning the presidency.
Vision 1920 understands how the Chancellor would find this troublesome. How could Ex-President Murano predict the ABET accreditation that would not happen for another 6 months. Just because the ABET site visit was completed (pdf) by November 2008:
Dr. Bennett added that the ABET accreditation process was just completed at the Texas A&M University in Qatar; the University
just graduated their first engineering class last year.
and TAMU would have already received the evaluation committees report and had a chance to respond to any concerns. In her February 24 report to the Chancellor, Murano had no business relying on these things, or the news release from the engineering program referred to here:
CORRECTION: March 24, 2009

The original story (February 13, 2009) did not accurately reflect the current status of the ABET accreditation process at Texas A&M University at Qatar. The original headline, “Texas A&M at Qatar celebrates ABET accreditation,” should have read, “Texas A&M thanks faculty for helping prepare Qatar program for accreditation process.” Changes to the text for clarity have been made; the complete corrected text is below. Texas A&M Engineering Communications sincerely regrets any ambiguities or inaccuracies reflected in the original story.
This mendacious behavior explains the "QATAR" in the Chancellor's handwritten notes (pdf). It couldn't have had anything to do with other rumors that have been flying.

The cost of Higher Ed.

Chairman Foster back in June:
As the new chairman of The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, I am determined to trim costs in order to keep our flagship university affordable. Since 2000, tuition and fees at Texas A&M have risen from a little more than $1,500 per semester for 15 hours to more than $3,900 for the same course load. Even if you factor in inflation, the cost has more than doubled for our families.
At the Carpe Diem blog, Prof Mark Perry of the Univ. of Michigan has some graphs about the drivers of costs at US universities.

Vision 1920 wonders what the data looks like for A&M and for the TAMU System.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Peer institutions

The Eagle reports
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni rated course offerings for 100 colleges, and Texas A&M was one of only seven to earn an "A."

The council based its rankings on how many of the institutions had general education requirements that include composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science.

Texas A&M was among seven institutions that included six of those categories in its general requirements. None of the 100 schools required courses in all seven general education categories. Texas A&M requires study in all of the covered areas except economics. Just two universities in the sampling -- the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and West Point -- require economics.

Along with Texas A&M, the group's highest ranking went to Baylor, West Point, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Arkansas, City University of New York-Hunter College and City University of New York-Brooklyn College.
Like Vision 2020, Vision 1920 is about making A&M a top 10 pubic university. We just plan to do it by use different criteria. BTHO Baylor! BTHO Arkansas! Whoop!

There are always critics, of course:
Critics of the ACTA review, however, said the group's methodology and criteria were inadequate.

"They have basically just looked at the course catalogs of 100 colleges, and that's it," Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Others might note that universities above us in other rankings expect students to have had this stuff in high school.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is this a virus or something?

The Eagle reports:
Texas A&M Student Body President Eric Beckham resigned his posted Tuesday, according to an e-mail he sent to students.

Kolin Loveless, who was elected as speaker of the student senate in April, will take over Beckham’s duties. Such action is outlined in the Student Government Association’s constitution, officials said.

The e-mail offered no specific explanation for the resignation, saying only that Beckham had done so “after a great deal of reflection and thought” for “a variety of personal reasons.”
There certainly have been plenty of role models for Mr. Beckham of late. Unlike the others at TAMU, Mr. Beckham doesn't get to go back to a tenured faculty position.

KBTX points out that Beckham was the student representative on the Presidential Search Committee, and wonders if he will continue in that position or be replaced.

I get no kickbacks from Champaign

The Chicago Tribune reports:
Four University of Illinois trustees offered their resignations Tuesday, bowing to the wishes of a governor who has vowed to overhaul the board following an admissions scandal that has jolted the state's most prestigious public campus.

Board members Kenneth Schmidt, Robert Vickrey, Devon Bruce and David Dorris said they had notified Gov. Pat Quinn's office of their decisions and awaited his response. All four said they would prefer to finish their terms and help rebuild public confidence in the school.

The resignation offers come nearly two weeks after Quinn called for them and mere hours after he threatened to fire holdouts.

"It's not the hand I'd like to play, but it's the hand that was dealt," Schmidt said. "I wish it would have rolled out differently."

Seven of nine trustees now have volunteered to step down, setting up a showdown between the governor and the two remaining trustees: Frances Carroll and James Montgomery. Both have expressed reluctance to step down, with Montgomery going as far as to say he would challenge the decision in court.
Whoever heard of firing the trustees for a great State University? What's going on in the land of Lincoln?
Mr. Quinn, who accepted Mr. Shah’s resignation, had set up a commission in June to review admissions at the university after The Chicago Tribune reported that hundreds of applicants won acceptance at the intervention of well-placed family members or friends, including trustees like Mr. Shah.
The people of Illinois should expect better of the trustees. Vision 1920 suggests that they look to Texas as a model for how to deal with the politically well-connected. Using Universities for mere admissions interventions shows a real lack of imagination.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Congrats to the August Grads

Vision 1920 didn't make it to graduation, but we are confident that no one left early and Regent Stallings gave sage advice, at least if they have a future in university administration.
Rank and file has its privilege. A colonel can't tell a general what to do. ... A chancellor's job is to run the system. A president's job is to please the chancellor.

Friday, August 14, 2009

System investment policy

In the comments, kzNtvHQ42Poq1tCrtK05_PlccxYebCL_9qE- (or kz for short) asks:
how does the updated system policy regarding investment change the previous systeM?

Well, kz, Vision 1920 has no idea. The changes in the policy can be seen in the marked up copy of the BoR agenda book (pdf, 391 pages).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Survey says

Earlier this week, KBTX reported
The search committee to select the next president of Texas A&M University today added a survey feedback form to its online website to increase input from the public and Aggie stakeholders.
In addition to the email address to send input, an online survey is being used. The questions address what qualifications a new president should have, what parts of the student experience are most important, and what the greatest challenges facing Texas A&M are. Taking the survey requires an access code, so it's not exactly open to the public, and it isn't clear from the story who is getting the codes. [Update: See comment below. Vision 1920 seems to have used the wrong URL?]

Chairman Foster has stated that the search criteria and job description will be released prior to starting the outreach to candidates. This does not necessarily mean releasing what the survey participants or the various committee members think the criteria or job description should be. Vision 1920 has heard that the Regents do not want the criteria to rule out leaders from outside academia, and releasing a survey suggesting that A&M needs a president with actual experience at a top-notch university might be off-putting to those kinds of candidates.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


There's an interesting side note in the Eagle story about the resignation of the CPI chair.
Last week, lawyers from the A&M System asked the CPI to take down from the group's Web site "proprietary documents" related to the centers that contained profit estimates and a strategic plan titled "Redefining the Biomedical Enterprise." The CPI complied.

Rod Davis, a spokesman for the A&M System, said the concerns that the system had were related only to the documents containing the proprietary information and said no pressure was put on Bell-Pedersen to step down.

"To have that posted would have been breaking the law, so our general counsel sent a letter to the CPI asking them to take it down," Davis said. "When advised, they took it down."
Some may wonder what kind of proprietary information would be in the documents about a taxpayer-funded public institution. Especially since we've been assured that there are no deals with any companies. Doesn't the public have a right to know what the strategic plan is for their tax dollars?

Well, no.

Universities have a lot of legal requirements for confidentiality under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA ensures that academic records can only be disclosed with a student's consent, event to his parents. So, even if they think they're the most unintentionally entertaining things they've ever read, the faculty aren't allowed to post a student's reports on the internet where his parents might see them and cut him off.

Resistance is futile

Another opponent of the Vision 1920 steps aside
The chair of a group representing the Texas A&M research community stepped down last week, saying in an e-mail to members that she was leaving for personal reasons and to pursue research interests.

Deborah Bell-Pedersen, whose yearlong term was scheduled to end in May, on Saturday announced in an e-mail that she was leaving her post at the Council of Principal Investigators. The group in recent weeks has been critical of the A&M System's proposed National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing and a pair of other therapeutics-related centers.

Nancy Amato, a computer science professor, will serve as interim chair of the group. Neither Bell-Pedersen, who was out of the country, nor Amato could not be reached for comment.
Looks like the faculty are starting to understand which way the wind is blowing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The (Virtual) stars are bright

Commenter ebrazos points out
...TIGM is co-recipient of a $3.2 million grant from the EPA.
ebrazos provides a link to the HSC website
TIGM will receive $750,000 over three years in collaboration with the University of Houston and Indiana University through a new entity called the Texas-Indiana Virtual STAR (TIVS) Center.
The Texas-Indiana Virtual STAR Center is designed to provide a more reliable chemical risk assessment by creating in vitro (controlled environment) screening models of mouse embryonic stem cells (TIGM) and zebrafish (at the University of Houston) for toxicity. Data from these models then will be used by Indiana University to produce predictive computer models for toxicity on processes that are also relevant in human embryonic development.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

When we do something twice in Aggieland, it becomes a tradition

In today's Houston Chronicle, Loren Steffy compares the NCTM to the earlier deal with Lexicon for TIGM
Brett Giroir, A&M's vice chancellor for research, said he alone chose Introgen.

“Rick Perry had nothing to do with my interacting with Introgen,” he said. “This was strictly a decision based on there's a company right here's who's a major player in that field.”

That's similar to the argument the A&M System used in 2005 to defend its now defunct partnership with Lexicon Pharmaceuticals of The Woodlands. Had that deal succeeded, it would have benefited Lexicon's shareholders, which included several prominent Perry campaign contributors.
The precedent is arguably older than Lexicon/TIGM. Some at A&M say the Institute for Biosciences and Technology was created to support the bovine embryo research of Granada Biosciences, which was owned by former Regent David Eller. But the IBT went in other directions, and Granada wound up going under and selling their patents to a rival. The ETF and TEF provide creative new funding mechanisms that weren't available to Granada.

Pandemic alert

Loren Steffy takes shots at A&M again in the Houston Chronicle
Texas A&M's plan to develop a world-class medical research facility could use an injection of integrity.

In January, the state awarded A&M $50 million from the Emerging Technology Fund, which purports to benefit private-sector technology startups, for the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing, which plans to develop new vaccines.

Unfortunately, the infusion of taxpayer money is showing some disturbing symptoms that have been found in other state economic development deals: a web of political relationships and arrangements with financially shaky companies with ties to key decision makers in the process.
Steffy reviews material that will mostly be familiar to readers of the Vision 1920 blog. There are a few things we've missed here, though:
Bob Pearson, an Introgen director at the time of the grant and a Perry campaign contributor, is also a member of the 17-member advisory board that reviews the tech fund grants.

Introgen was founded by David Nance, a major Perry supporter who's currently on the statewide finance committee for the governor's re-election campaign. Nance, who quit Introgen just before the bankruptcy, donated $50,000 to Perry's campaign in 2005 and 2006, records show, and Perry has appointed him to three different technology committees — including the tech fund advisory panel — dating to Perry's stint as lieutenant governor.
Steffy has been a potbanger over A&M's tech vision before. He loses credibility, though with this:
“There's not a single dollar I've gotten off of any patents,” he [Giroir]said. “I never took a single dime from Xoma.”

Maybe not, but the A&M System has taken five million dimes from taxpayers, and they deserve better. The public may benefit from the NCTM's vaccine research, but it's the sort of deal that leaves taxpayers feeling sick.
5 million dimes is only $500K. The NCTM got five hundred million taxpayer dimes.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

More misconceptions about TIGM

Rick Finnell's email (pdf) also discusses the origins of TIGM
Your second major concern was about how the decision was made to go after this Texas Enterprise Fund award. I certainly do not know when the conversations began, as I was a faculty member brought in to give my input sometime long after the process had already started. I had my own opinions as to whether or not TAMUS should get involved and what other options might have been explored.
This might seem to be surprising, given Guy Diedrich's account during the Giroir open forum
Vice Chancellor for Federal Relations and Commercialization Guy Diedrich on Monday called claims that TIGM started in the system offices "revisionist history." He told those at the forum that proposals first came from faculty members and people in the office of former Vice President for Research Richard Ewing.
If Finnell only came in later, who was driving the formation of TIGM? Let's look at the minutes(pdf) from the BoR meeting in July 2005
Mr. White said that the Texas Institute for Genomic Medicine (TIGM) is a great example of collaboration within the System. He commented on the involvement of Dr. Bob McTeer, Chancellor; Dr. Bob Gates, President of TAMU; Dr. Dick Ewing, Vice President of for Research at TAMU; Dr. Nancy Dickey, President of the System Health Science Center (HSC); Dr. Rick Finnell, Director of the Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT); and Mr. Guy Diedrich, Managing Director of the Technology Commercialization Center...

Mr. Nye said that on behalf of the Board and others, he wanted to recognize that Mr. White was very instrumental in receiving the idea, getting it germinated at the state level, attracting the funds and bringing it to the university when it could have gone many other places. He commended Mr. White and said that this was a wonderful undertaking and it was appreciated.


Dr. McTeer commented that the morning before the press conference, TIGM held its organizing board meeting and Mr. White was elected as chairman. He said that this was probably the most important thing that would happen during his administration.
Dr. McTeer said that there were many people who should be commended, such as Mr. Diedrich and Mr. Doug Centilli, Congressman Kevin Brady’s Chief of Staff.
In 2006, Dr. McTeer spoke to the Texas Lyceum
Not long after TIGM was formed, I had breakfast with Alan Greenspan in Washington. He asked me what was going on in my new world. When I started explaining all this to him, he interrupted me to ask why it was that most research mice are white rather than brown. After a long moment that seemed like an hour—a place I’d been before with him—I finally said, “Mr. Chairman, It’s a conundrum.”

Pretty soon, Guy Diedrich, who had brokered the TIGM deal (and who will be on your program tomorrow) brought me another deal to sign.
The record supports Diedrich's account. The idea for TIGM didn't start with the System; it started with Regent White, who probably heard about Lexicon from his time working with the Houston Technology Center. Diedrich, working in the VPR's office at TAMU was tasked with making it happen, so the proposals originated with TAMU, not TAMUS.

Misconceptions about TIGM

The CPI has posted an email (pdf) from Rick Finnell giving his take on the TIGM story. The email was in response to comments made during Brett Giroir's open forum by Prof. Mary Meagher. Excerpts:
First, the RFA that TIGM responded to from the NIH specifically requested conventional over conditional clones. If you read the RFA, and I trust that you have since you specifically commented on this point, then you would see that the request was for a straight (conventional) knockout with a reporter in C57BL/6 ES cells. That is it. While the scientific community, of which I am a part, would have preferred that NIH invest in a conditional asset, that is NOT what the RFA requested. So TIGM was absolutely responding to the RFA.
Vision 1920 blogged about the RFA here. Our tame faculty member says Finnell is correct that the RFA expressed concerns about high-throughput generation of conditional knockouts. However,
  • Finnell does not address the requirement in the RFA for a plan to go after at least 25% of the genes missed by prior gene trapping approaches. TIGM is still based on gene traps, while the RFA emphasized the need for a targeted approach.
  • Meagher's comment about conditional knockouts may not be relevant to what happened during the KOMP grant process, but it is relevant to the likely demand for TIGM knockout mice going forward
Vision 1920 points out, however, that low demand is a good thing, since Giroir said TIGM loses money on producing mice from ES cells.
The fact that TIGM barely existed (I was the only TIGM member, devoting 25% of my effort at the time of the submission), we had no track record which, as you know from submitting grant proposals to NIH, weighs heavily upon the reviewers. Yes, we could pretty much guarantee a successful outcome to Francis Collins, as we were in the position to put up the 273,000 ES cell clones from the 129 OmniBank 1 gene‐trap library, up to 3000 already made Lexicon knockout mice, and the 350,000 C57 ES cell clone gene‐trap library that was under construction. But we lacked credibility as we had no reputation for shipping products to end users...
Who could have predicted that a lack of a track record was an issue when the prospect of the KOMP grant was used as the basis for its original TIGM business plan?

Finnell also suggests shenanigans:
One could speculate endlessly about the other reasons why TIGM did not get the KOMP RFA (see the attached Science article), but that is really only self‐serving and no good can come of it at this point in time. Suffice to say that the review and its outcome were highly irregular, prompting Francis Collins and his senior KOMP staff to fly to Houston to try to explain to us in person why we were not funded. I don’t know about you, but when my NIH applications are not funded, my program officer doesn’t spontaneously call me and jump on a plane to talk to me in person about it. Quite the contrary, they are usually hard to find. This was unusual. That is all I can really say.
If Collins went forward with KOMP funding to TIGM rivals despite a "highly irregular" review, perhaps he should be asked about it when he comes up for confirmation as NIH director.