UT partners with MyEdu despite familial connection

Liz Farmer

UT System officials were aware of a familial connection between a MyEdu Corp. executive and a former chancellor, according to emails obtained by The Daily Texan through the Texas Public Information Act.

The system invested $10 million in the website MyEdu to increase graduation rates by helping students better understand how to navigate through their degree plans with online advising. The UT System publicly mentioned interest in MyEdu at the Aug. 25 Board of Regents meeting and formally announced the partnership on Oct. 18.

Randa Safady, UT System vice chancellor for external relations, sent an email to system officials, including Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, about a personal connection between MyEdu and the UT System on July 5. William Cunningham is a former system chancellor, former UT-Austin president and current faculty member at the McCombs School of Business. Cunningham has had a financial stake in MyEdu, which was co-founded by his son, John Cunningham.

“John Cunningham is Bill Cunningham’s son,” Safady said in the email. “He started this business some time ago, and it has really taken off. I believe Bill has supported it, too.”

Cigarroa, in a response to Safady’s email, did not directly acknowledge the connection but said he and two other UT regents were interested in the company.

UT System spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said in an email to The Daily Texan that the chancellor was aware of the familial connection but not of the financial stake the elder Cunningham has in the company. De Bruyn also said that even if knowledge of the financial stake had been known, the system was under no legal obligation to disclose it, as Texas Government Code only places procedural restrictions if a contract is within four years of the person being the executive head of the state agency. Bill Cunningham was chancellor until 2000.

Cigarroa presented the MyEdu partnership as a way to improve four-year graduation rates, which would allow for students to get through UT institutions more quickly and allow for a greater number of students to attend the institutions.

MyEdu officials plan to initially launch the new platform at UT-Austin, UT-Arlington and UT-Permian Basin before the next registration period in the spring.

MyEdu co-founder and CEO Michael Crosno sent an email to Cigarroa on Aug. 27 about his vision for MyEdu’s financial impact for students.

“Soon the UT System will set the bar for providing tools to families for lowering the cost of their education, and it won’t be through reducing tuition — there are better ways,” Crosno wrote.

Cigarroa expressed enthusiasm to sign the MyEdu agreement, which Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, echoed in an email on Sept. 12.

“I am good to go with the chancellor signing these documents,” Powell said. “Congratulations! Great work in record time.”

UT-Austin faculty have raised concerns about inaccurate information on the current MyEdu site, including classes listed under their names for courses never taught.

Frank Lyman, MyEdu senior vice president of marketing and business development, said data on MyEdu about students, faculty and classes comes from public information requests. Lyman said the new platform should be more reliable because data will come directly from the UT System. He said this benefits students and faculty because MyEdu can now go directly to the UT System to correct inaccuracies.

“When we don’t have accurate data, we’re not credible,” Lyman said.

MyEdu currently contains a comments and ratings section that allows users to evaluate individual faculty members and see class grade distributions. Some faculty worry that the feedback is unreliable and could be used in making University personnel decisions, including those made when awarding tenure. President William Powers Jr. said a few weeks ago that the information available on MyEdu will not be used to judge professors because the University has its own course evaluations.

Lyman said MyEdu will talk about the comments and ratings section with key University contacts, but it is difficult to say what decision will be made about the role of the section in the new platform. He said the information can help students choose which professor to take, but plans depend upon the answer to the question “is there a way to do this that faculty members support?”

Lyman said MyEdu wants to better understand faculty concerns and suggestions for tools so the company will talk to key contacts from the pilot institutions within the next month.

“We realize we need to deepen our relationship with faculty and advisers,” Lyman said. “We all have a common goal — get the students through the class and graduate.”

Lyman said the information sharing with the UT System will allow for new tools to be made. He said the most requested tool from students is to be able to see class availability as they register.

UT student regent John Davis Rutkauskas attended the July 13 meeting between some of the UT System regents and MyEdu via teleconference. Rutkauskas addressed the UT Senate of College Councils meeting a few weeks ago and said overall, there is a lot of uncertainty about the MyEdu partnership. Rutkauskas said most of the discussions with MyEdu are in regards to big-picture ideas and he agreed with Senate members that the UT System should not move forward until some of the major questions are answered.

“It’s easy to understand why a faculty member might be concerned about MyEdu,” Rutkauskas said.

However, Rutkauskas said, some faculty members “misunderstand the technology” because they cannot see all of the advising tools available to students if they do not create a MyEdu login. Rutkauskas championed the deal and said it was made for the benefit of the students to help them get through the University as quickly as they want.

The student regent said he wants to help further discussions when it’s pertinent to people in the UT System administration. Rutkauskas criticized negative feedback about the partnership and said he originally expected faculty and students at UT Austin to applaud the deal.

“If I’m totally off base with that, then let me know,” Rutkauskas said.

Printed on Tuesday, November 29, 2011 as: UT partners with MyEdu despite family ties