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President's Inaugural Address on the State of the University

William Powers Jr., the 28th president of The University of Texas at Austin, delivered the State of the University address at his Sept. 29 installation ceremony at Bass Concert Hall.

This is a very exciting day for me and my family. Oscar Wilde once said that very few of us are treated as we deserve, and thank God for that. I have been blessed far beyond what I deserve. But deserved or not, I am very grateful, and proud beyond words to have this opportunity to serve as the 28th president of The University of Texas at Austin.

To all of you here today:  Chairman Huffines, members of the Board of Regents, Chancellor Yudof, and distinguished guests. To all of our campus family: our stellar faculty, our wonderful students, and our dedicated staff. And to all of the University’s friends gathered here today. To all of you, thank you for being here, and for sharing this wonderful moment.

We say – we rightly say– that the University of Texas transforms lives. One of my great pleasures is visiting with alumni throughout Texas, around the country, and indeed around the world. They say that their time here on the 40 Acres transformed their lives. I am no different.

I have been here at UT for nearly 30 years, first as a law professor and then as dean of our Law School. This great university transformed my life too. When I was named President, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison gave me a warm hug and noted that she didn’t need to teach me to love Texas. And she was right.

UT has a unique character and presence among the nation’s preeminent public universities.  It makes an outstanding college education accessible and affordable to young people from Texas and beyond.  This special place reminds me how important a great public university was to me and my family when I was entering college. UT has transformed tens of thousands of lives, year after year. This university has had a tremendous impact on the history, culture, and social fabric of our state and our nation.

What a bold vision early Texas leaders had when they wrote in the Constitution of 1876 that the State should “establish, organize, and provide for the maintenance, support, and direction of a university of the first class.”  That vision has been sharpened by each generation. The Commission of 125 sharpened it further when it challenged us “to create a disciplined culture of excellence.”

With outstanding leadership from many people in this room – former presidents Norm Hackerman, Peter Flawn, Bill Livingston, and Bill Cunningham – and most recently from President Larry Faulkner, we have made significant progress. The Times of London has already recognized UT as the third-best public university in the United States.  I’ve always thought the British were learned and perceptive. After all, Britain is the land of Shakespeare and Churchill.  They recognize the power of our great University.

Third best is good, but it is not good enough for Texas. I believe – I firmly believe – that the University of Texas at Austin can be the great public university in America. This is also what the Commission of 125 believes. Becoming the best public university in America is the task of our generation. This is an ambitious goal. Indeed, it is an audacious goal. But it is a goal we are poised to reach. We need to ensure that this is Texas’s time. Our decade, our era.

My mission today is to convince you that this goal is within reach. Striving to be the best is not just a platitude, it is something we can achieve.

What qualities will define the great public university in the 21st century?

  • A superb faculty
  • The best graduate students
  • Outstanding undergraduates and an outstanding undergraduate experience
  • A deep connection with and a profound impact on society
  • A diverse faculty and student body
  • Leading international programs and a global reach, and, crucially,
  • A robust research enterprise

A Great Faculty

True national leadership must begin with our faculty.  No institution of higher learning is great unless its faculty is great.  We have an outstanding faculty. I’m proud to be a colleague of so many talented teachers and scholars.  I myself have taken great joy in my own teaching and research.

If we are to become the very best, our faculty – including all of our new appointments – must distinguish themselves among the very best and brightest in the nation.    

To attract—and to retain-- the best professors, our salaries need to be more competitive in the national market.  We are behind our competitors, and we need to catch up. We have to compete in research support, research leave, and travel for our faculty. We are behind our competitors there as well.

The major result of the Centennial Commission in 1983 was President Peter Flawn’s emphasis on creating more endowments – specifically more endowed chairs – to reward and retain our strongest faculty and to attract rising stars nationwide. He succeeded magnificently. Today, we continue to need more support--and we need more flexible support--to further transform our University.

We also need to continue—and to expand—the faculty hiring program begun in 2000. President Faulkner established a goal of hiring 300 new faculty members within 10 years. We have hired 175 of those new positions already. Expanding the faculty is important because it will help us enrich the student experience. The Commission of 125 assessed the nation’s leading public universities and set our goal at a 16-to-1 student-faculty ratio, which is commensurate with the best universities in the country.

Today our student-faculty ratio is 18-to-1. We need 270 new faculty to lower that ratio to 16-to-1. We are already committed to hiring 125 more to complete our 300 faculty expansion. Beyond that, we need an additional 145 new faculty to attain the Commission’s goal and put us on equal footing with the best. Today, I commit to continuing our faculty expansion until our student-faculty ratio reaches 16-to-1.

Great faculty work together in great departments and research units. We need to recognize that a great university is built brick by brick through its departments.  When we hire department chairs, we must attract strong leaders. And we must empower existing leadership with new resources. Among our newly recruited leaders, for example, are Richard Aldrich in the Section of Neurobiology in the School of Biological Sciences and Charles Groat in our Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the Jackson School of Geosciences.

To support the efforts of a current chair, we have chosen to focus next on the Department of History, under the leadership of Alan Tully. This department, which is ranked in the nation’s top 20, has a strong faculty that includes the recipient of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, David Oshinsky who won for his book, Polio: An American Story. The faculty members in History share a vision of excellence and have built a harmonious professional environment.  For these reasons, I have committed more than $1.3 million in new recurring funds – for six new faculty members, nationally competitive graduate stipends, and a departmental excellence fund for speakers, symposia, and visiting scholars. We expect great things from the Department of History, and we will hold it accountable for making the most of these new resources. In addition, we will identify other departments that have a strong academic vision.

Building the University department by department will take resources. I have already enlisted the help of the deans, and I will be soliciting help from the department chairs as well, to guide the strategic planning for the most ambitious fundraising effort in the history of the university. It is too early to go into detail about this effort, but I can assure you, we intend to think big! And we will involve the entire UT family in the process.

I am pleased to recognize the Department of History, because it gives me an opportunity to publicly state my support for the liberal arts, fine arts, and humanities at our university.  While it is vitally important to support and expand our initiatives in STEM subjects, that is, – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – it is equally important to strengthen and enrich our studies of literature, language, philosophy, music, visual art, and other disciplines.  We cannot lay claim to being a comprehensive university unless we maintain excellent programs in the humanities.  As Harry Ransom once wrote, “the humanities confront all that is vague, changeful, unpredictable, immeasurable, unknown, and unknowable.”  That is the challenge of the arts and humanities. It is critical that we have the best arts and humanities programs in the nation.

Graduate Student Support

To be the very best public university in the country we also need the very best graduate students. Graduate students play a crucial role in teaching and in research.  World class researchers require world class graduate students to investigate nerve and tissue regeneration in biomedical engineering, to decipher Mayan hieroglyphics, and to produce provocative art. Great professors attract great graduate students, and great graduate students attract great faculty. Each is necessary, and supportive of the other.

We already produce nationally acclaimed graduate programs.  But we need to do more. When deciding where to go to graduate school, or Law School, or to get an MBA, we want the undergraduates in Texas and around the country to say “sure, I would be happy doing graduate work at Michigan or Berkeley or Virginia, but I really want to go to Texas.” 

In order to attract the best graduate students, we have to provide better support. Put simply, this means offering more appealing fellowships and stronger financial packages.  We lag far behind our competitors in support for graduate students. Every year we lose outstanding graduate students because our financial support does not compete well in the national arena.  And we lose these students not only to schools like Berkeley and Michigan, but to schools whose graduate programs are not as good as ours.  If we aspire to international prominence, we have to spend more money on graduate education at this university. As a down payment on that process, I propose to add $1 million to our funding of graduate student support. That is just a start. Graduate fellowships and programs will be a central element of the next capital campaign.

A Premier Undergraduate Experience

To be the very best public university in America, we also need to attract the very best undergraduate students, and we need to give them a transformative experience. That takes work, and focus, and resources. It is always tempting for large, sprawling research universities to short change their undergraduates, especially in their freshman and sophomore years. We need to make sure that our undergraduate students experience the treasures of our great university, such as the Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum. But even more than that, they must be taught by our very best professors.

At this point in our history, we have a unique opportunity to create a premier undergraduate experience that will serve as a model for all large public research universities in the 21st century.  The Commission of 125 observed that UT does a superb job teaching the specialized courses that satisfy degree plans.  But we are less focused in teaching the broad core curriculum. We rely on this common experience to prepare our students to be educated citizens of the world. Many students depend on the core for learning about the arts, global cultures, ethics, diversity, science, mathematics, citizenship, and the skills of writing and critical thinking.  We can do a better job of teaching the core—a better job of preparing our graduates for life in an increasingly complex and diverse society.

Curriculum reform has been a major focus of our University community for the past year.  Many of you are aware that I served as chair of the Task Force on Curricular Reform. It was composed of 18 faculty and two students, and it delivered its report in October of 2005. Our campus has spent the better part of a year evaluating undergraduate education at UT and how it can be improved. After more review, the Educational Policy Committee of the Faculty Council submitted a motion with its recommendations, which reflect compromises and modifications. The Faculty Council will act on that motion in October. I am pleased to say that these revised recommendations have gained broad support on our campus. I want to give special thanks to Professors Alba Ortiz, Linda Golden, Archie Holmes, and David Hillis for their leadership in the Faculty Council to make this progress possible. We are taking bold steps to enrich undergraduate education, and I hope all of you will help us to succeed.

As part of this transformation, I have appointed Paul Woodruff as the inaugural Dean of Undergraduate Studies. He will be the guardian and champion of these reforms. He is the ideal person to accept this challenge. Dean Woodruff is an internationally recognized scholar, a prolific author, a talented teacher, and a proven administrator. He is the former director of Plan II, UT’s most distinguished honors program, and he is a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers. Paul is an advocate for great teaching and for interdisciplinary study. He will make an outstanding guardian of the undergraduate core curriculum.

At the moment, more than 200 students are enrolled in a prototype of a cross-disciplinary freshman course entitled, “Sustaining a Planet.” The course is being taught by Professors Jay Banner of the Department of Geological Sciences and David Allen of Chemical Engineering. The campus will watch the progress of this interdisciplinary experiment with great interest. 

I am also pleased to report that the University Co-op has pledged $1 million to support initiatives in undergraduate education at UT. I thank George Mitchell and the Co-op board of directors for this gift. I believe that other donors and friends of the University will recognize the value of improving the quality of undergraduate experience and rally around this important goal.  

Serving Texas and the Nation

To be the great public university, we need to remain connected to the people of Texas. I am familiar with many great universities around the country. I can say with confidence that no university has a more intimate and powerful relationship with the people of its state than does the University of Texas. We have had a profound impact on the leadership of our state. Conversely, we have been deeply influenced by the citizens of Texas. The Commission of 125 is a shining example, but we also benefit of the advice, vision, and direction from advisory councils in nearly every program on our campus. We cannot claim the mantle of the leading public university in our country unless we keep that connection with the people of Texas.

A Diverse Learning Environment

Moreover, we cannot profess to be the great public university unless we educate a diverse group of leaders to guide Texas and the nation into the future. Texas gains strength from our diverse population, from our diverse leaders, and from our border with Mexico. We must capitalize on these assets, and we must make sure that we have a diverse student body, faculty, and staff. I am extremely proud that during my five years as Dean of our Law School we quadrupled the number of African American students and doubled the number of Hispanic students in our entering class. We have made substantial progress on the campus as a whole. I am pleased to report that this fall we enrolled the most diverse freshman class in our history, with 5 percent African American students, 18 percent Asian American students, and 19 percent Hispanic students--the highest percentage of Hispanic freshmen in UT history. We must continue this progress. Simultaneously, it is crucial that we also gain more flexibility in our admissions process, so that we are not admitting over 70% of our students on a single criterion.

Attracting a talented and diverse student body and faculty cannot be accomplished with one technique alone. It takes outreach programs, admissions centers, and financial aid to attract students, and it takes creative programs to recruit faculty. We are studying all of our admissions and recruiting efforts to make sure we are bringing the very brightest students to UT. My experience at our Law School demonstrates that as we diversified our student body through vigorous recruiting efforts, we increased the quality of our students in a dramatic way.

While we have made progress diversifying our campus, more needs to be done. I pledge to make diversity one of my highest priorities. 

Global Impact

The leading public university in the country will also have a global impact. When I began my career in teaching, international issues were a small set of concerns that few students and leaders in our economic and political world needed to address. During my career this has changed dramatically. For many years my own field of tort law and products liability was a very local subject. Today no one can practice law effectively without representing clients who have legal issues around the world. And that is true of nearly every area of business, law, and public service.

UT is blessed with a rich array of global programs, including the Lozano-Long Institute for Latin American Studies, which is one of the crowning jewels on our campus. But we must expand and coordinate these international and global efforts in a more effective way. We are in the process of establishing a task force to examine this very topic. To be the great American public university we need to succeed in those efforts, and we will.

A Robust Research Enterprise

One of UT’s greatest strengths is our research.  We have a large, robust research enterprise that provides world class opportunities for our faculty, graduate students, and increasingly, for our undergraduates. The cumulative force of research that goes on here every day is the distinguishing characteristic that separates us from smaller liberal arts colleges and other public universities that do not have our research firepower.

Last year we had $423 million in sponsored research, an almost 11 percent increase from the previous year.  We rank fifth in federal funding for universities without medical schools.  This means that we are again within striking distance to number one.  And several strategic investments on our campus will help us approach that goal. 

We are building new facilities to house the Center for Nano and Molecular Science and Technology, the Institute for Geophysics, the Imaging Research Center, the Texas Advanced Computing Center, and the Dell Pediatric Research Institute.  Our institutional support for this broad range of research activity, from the sciences and computing to health care, indicates the impressive range of UT’s talent and abilities. In addition, we need to do a better job of transferring more of the technology developed on this campus into our economy.  We will do a better job.

Our research mission contributes tremendous economic benefit to the state of Texas. We transform our $276 million annual state appropriation into $7.4 billion in economic activity.  This is a multiplier of more than 25 to 1. And that does not even include the enormous increase in earning potential that our graduates enjoy as a result of their education. To our lawmakers I say: Investing in UT is a sound investment in the economy of Texas.       

The Value of Higher Education

The citizens of Texas need to better understand that their future is tied to an educated workforce, intellectual resources, technological innovation, and a critical mass of intellectual capital. Bob Gates, president of Texas A&M University, and I are planning a number of events where we will emphasize to state and community leaders across Texas that major research universities are essential to economic progress. President Gates and I have joined forces in an effort we are calling, “Horns and Aggies: Together for a Change.” One of our themes will be that world-class research universities perform a special role in the state and that, accordingly, they need sustainable, reliable, and long-term funding. This is a high priority for me as we approach the 80th session of the Texas Legislature in January.

Our alumni and friends certainly understand the value of higher education. I am pleased that for the fiscal year that ended in August, total gifts to the University amounted to $213 million, an impressive increase over the previous year’s total of $167 million. This represents our most significant year of fundraising without a capital campaign. Also, the year’s total includes more small gifts, an indication that philanthropic activity is expanding to include a greater number of donors.  This is a wonderful time to be a Longhorn, and our alumni and friends are responding with pride and confidence in their favorite university.

Conclusion

This is our time at Texas.  Yours and mine.  We’re in this together.  Everyone here today – and everyone who is a part of this university family worldwide – must contribute to our common goal of becoming the best public university in the country. 

I have tried to show that, when we consider the attributes of the great public university of the 21st century, UT is not far off the mark. When we compare ourselves to other top public universities, we find that for most criteria, we are very near the top. We have work to do, but we have a plan to get there.  That plan benefits the people of Texas as much as it benefits our institution. What starts here really does change the world.

But no president can do this alone. I need your help. Help from the faculty, from the staff, and from the students. From the Regents, from the Legislature, from our elected state leaders, from our alumni, and even from our friends at A&M. We will make our case to the state. We will make our case to our supporters with the most ambitious capital campaign in our history. We will become the leading public university in America. And Texas will be stronger as a result.

 

 




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