Powers Calls for Collaboration in Solving Higher Ed Crisis; Cites UT’s Mission in Bettering Society
Sept. 14, 2011
AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: The President's State of the University Address will air again on the Longhorn Network Sunday, Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m.
Challenging both critics and supporters to “heal our divided house,” University of Texas at Austin President William Powers Jr. today reaffirmed the power of higher education to educate citizens, discover new knowledge and improve society.
Powers delivered his sixth annual State of the University Address to students, faculty, alumni and state leaders gathered at the B. Iden Payne Theatre on campus. He acknowledged the need to embrace change and improve the university but stressed that change cannot undermine the constitutional mission to be a university of the first class.
“Today, as in every generation, we stand at a crossroads. Our highest task is educating young people to do more than just pull levers. We must train them in the art of critical thinking and imbue them with a love of learning,” Powers said. “A university education is predicated on the notion that after the experience, citizens would not only know more, but care more, and make the journey from knowing to caring to acting.”
Powers pointed to the university’s successes in reducing its budget, working with local school districts on college readiness programs and operating more efficiently than virtually all other public research universities in the nation. He said the university must take several concrete steps to control costs and maintain its productivity:
- Increase the four-year graduation rate to 70 percent within five years. This would allow students to save money and reduce debt while creating capacity for additional students.
- Use new technology to redesign courses. The university will invest $50 million in these efforts over the next five years and Powers challenged universities nationally to invest $1 billion.
- Recognize the ongoing productivity of faculty members who, on average, carry a teaching load that is 33 percent larger than required by the University of Texas System.
Powers’ vision is consistent with University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s Framework for Excellence, which was approved last month by the University of Texas Board of Regents.
“Our chancellor has laid out a plan for moving forward together to address the challenges that lie ahead. I congratulate him for that, and I pledge to work with him and others to bring this about,” Powers said. “But all of the parties must participate. Effort cannot be unilateral. So I challenge all of us – and I mean all of us – to work to heal our divided house.”
The full text of the president's address follows:
William Powers Jr., President
State of the University Address
Sept. 14, 2011
B. Iden Payne Theatre
The University of Texas at Austin
Thank you, Alan. Thank you all for being here today. And happy birthday, UT.
Each year around UT’s birthday, I stand before you to discuss the state of our university. I typically present a highlight reel of accomplishments from the past year, coupled with challenges and goals for the year ahead, and I’ll do some of that this year. We certainly have accomplished many things in the past 12 months, and we do have challenges as we enter a new academic year. But today, I also want step back and take a broader look at who we are, why we’re here, and why we do things as we do. At the risk of being a bit philosophical, I want to examine the soul of our university and universities like it across the country.
It’s not news to say that we’ve been at the center of a contentious debate. We’ve also been the target of very pointed criticism. During this debate, we have been supported by throngs of alumni, students, faculty, and legislators. These supporters recognize the need for change at UT, but not change that undermines our constitutional mission to be a university of the first class. To each and every one of you, I say that your support for our university has been the most gratifying part of my 33-year career on the Forty Acres. I’ve never seen our own campus so unified. I’m as proud as I’ve ever been to be a Longhorn.
In and of itself, a robust debate about the future of UT is a healthy thing. Even when it’s uncomfortable, debate is necessary to spark change in how we go about our business, and it’s critical if we’re to flourish in a changing economic and social environment.
But our controversy runs deeper than that. It has often turned into an ugly attack. To paraphrase Lincoln, we are a house divided about our fundamental mission and character. The University of Texas can survive a robust debate among people with very different views about how we operate, but it won’t survive as one of the world’s great research and teaching universities – let alone become the best public university in America – if we remain divided about our fundamental mission and character – about our very soul. And we won’t move forward unless we’re all candid about this.
That, I’m sorry to say, is the current state of our University.
Our most important challenge is to move beyond this state of affairs. We simply must find ways to work together. Political leaders and educators must come together to find a way forward – a modus vivendi, if you will – that addresses real concerns about productivity, efficiency, and cost, but does so in a way that preserves our unique character and reputation as one of the world’s great institutions of learning and research, a character and reputation that we earned through decades of strategic planning and hard work. This outstanding institution was filled up thimbleful by thimbleful. If we’re not careful, it can be wasted in buckets.
Just three weeks ago, our chancellor laid out a plan for moving forward together to address the challenges that lie ahead. I congratulate him for that, and I pledge to work with him and others to bring this about. But all of the parties must participate. The effort can’t be unilateral. So I challenge all of us – and I mean all of us – to work to heal our divided house.
The first task is to change the tone of the discussion. Our faculty are not the problem. They are our strength. Not only are they not the problem, they are a big part of the solutions to the very real challenges we do face. We can’t design and implement sustainable change without their help. They care deeply about their teaching, and about the success of our students. It is absolutely critical that we preserve and embrace an atmosphere on our campus that continues to attract and retain the very best faculty talent in the nation. We live in an extremely competitive national market for faculty talent, and without them we will not succeed.
We all got off to a bad start over a year ago with the now-famous Red and Black Report at Texas A&M. We see the attack on the research university model in national articles by outsiders who divide our faculty into categories that include “dodgers” and “coasters.” We can’t control outsiders. But we can control our own response. The tone of the discussion would take a positive turn if everyone in the UT family – even those who call for more extensive change – would publicly defend our faculty and our campus from these outside attacks. Let’s continue to focus on a constructive discussion of how we can move ahead in challenging and rapidly changing times. And let’s listen to and support our faculty in the process.
We also need to remember that change is not new to UT. The changes we are now instituting were set in motion by the systematic, multi-year efforts of the Commission of 125 when it submitted its report some seven years ago. I emphasized this in last year’s State of the University Address, and again last May in my address to that commission.
We’ve transformed our undergraduate curriculum, including instituting our Freshman Signature Courses that bring experienced faculty to our undergraduates in small groups the moment they arrive on campus. As most of you know, I teach one of these, and it’s a wonderful experience. We also engage new students through our Freshman Research Initiative. And we have instituted what we call “flag” requirements that focus on skills such as writing and critical thinking, not just on facts and subject matter.
In addition to reforming our curriculum, we’ve reorganized several administrative units, including Information Technology Services, Development, Public Affairs, and parts of Student Affairs. We’ve saved millions of dollars and eliminated several vice president positions. That’s a lot of change. We’ve utterly transformed our budgeting process to better match funding allocations with strategic decisions, allowing us to have greater impact with fewer dollars. And we have cut our budget by $46 million per year, or 16.5 percent of our annual general revenue.
We’ve developed new and improved business management systems, such as our Faculty Information System, to better track progress and performance of departments and programs, and we’ve established new shared purchasing programs that have saved millions of dollars.
We’ve instituted flat-rate tuition and other programs that have steadily improved graduation rates. And we’re addressing these issues at the statewide and national level. We’ve convened two consortia – one among a cross section of Texas universities and community colleges, and a second among several national research universities – to jointly take a leadership role in higher education productivity, especially in the area of using technology for online and blended courses. In this effort we have also partnered with Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard.
We are working on college readiness with projects in 10 Texas school districts.
Almost three years ago, I hired Vice Provost Harrison Keller to lead education reform projects like these. This position was almost unique among American universities, and I am thankful to him and Vice Provost Gretchen Ritter for making so much progress, and also to our faculty for being so engaged. As a reflection of their efforts, I was introduced as a pioneer in the field of productivity and change last month at a conference of the Lumina Foundation – a leader in higher education productivity reform and a wonderful financial and planning partner in these efforts.
These examples are not exhaustive, but even these belie the notion that we have our head in the sand, or have our feet dug in against change. More needs to be done. But it is critical we be given the space to continue these efforts so we can work not just for change, but for sustainable change.
We can’t take our shoulder from the wheel, but it is also important to remember that we aren’t broken in the way some of our critics claim. By almost any measure we already are among the most efficient and productive universities in America.
Our administrative costs as a percentage of our budget are half the state average. If you take our reputational rankings – a measure of what other people think of our educational and research effectiveness and divide them by our level of tuition and state funding, we are second in the country among public universities in productivity. The simple fact that state tax general revenue provides only 13 percent of our total budget – which we then leverage with our ability to attract outside money – is an indication that the citizens of Texas are getting a good deal. And the fact that we have 31,000 applicants for 7,200 freshman slots shows that students and their families also think we are a good value. Indeed, in August, Smart Money magazine named UT Austin the second best value in the United States.
While we confront real challenges that lie ahead, we need to remember that, every day, the real work of transforming lives takes place on our campus. It takes place in the classrooms, in the laboratories, and in the libraries. It takes place in student organizations, and in office hours.
We’ve certainly had a long, hot, dry, controversial, and frankly disheartening summer. Then, a few weeks ago, new students began reporting for orientation, Gone to Texas, and the first day of class. I met with my group of freshmen at our Reading Roundup and then with my freshman seminar. I saw faculty talking about their new classes and ongoing research. We returned to the other day-to-day business of the University. And when I experienced all that, my heart soared. I thought, this is what it’s all about. For all of our challenges, what starts here really does change the world. As we start a new academic year, we can’t be diverted from the task of transforming lives.
Even in difficult times, we need to take note of how much we accomplished this last year. We opened the long-anticipated Student Activity Center on the East Mall. We opened the much-needed Norman Hackerman Building to replace the old and dysfunctional Experimental Sciences Building. We broke ground on the Bill and Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex, which includes the Susan and Michael Dell Computer Science Hall. And we began construction on a much needed new Liberal Arts Building, which will also provide a modern new home for our ROTC programs. And we made good progress on funding for the new Engineering Building.
We raised $374 million from donors in very difficult economic times, making this our second-biggest year ever, topped only by $383 million in 2008. All of this is up from $150 million as recently as 2005. I want to thank all of our alumni and friends who have so steadfastly supported us in this critical time. At $1.66 billion, we are now more than halfway to our $3 billion goal. Despite being slightly behind schedule in this eight-year project, I think our progress is quite spectacular in the middle of a difficult economic recession.
Research grants are very tight now given stress in the federal budget and the economy in general, so we were off slightly in research income. But we still raised nearly $528 million this past year and have some exciting and very large prospects in the works. And our income for commercializing scientific and technological patents and copyrights was more than $25 million, up 80 percent from 2009-2010, which puts us in an elite group of American universities.
And of course, we’ve been busy creating the Longhorn Network, a first-of-its-kind partnership with ESPN that will provide UT with $300 million over the next 20 years. This partnership has already been responsible for funding a faculty chair in art history and will soon be funding additional chairs in physics, philosophy, communication, mathematics, and African and African Diaspora Studies, with more to come in the future. Our partners are working around the clock to gain the widest possible distribution of this important new communications platform to the Longhorn nation, and everyone in the UT family can help the effort by contacting their providers and requesting the network.
But while we had a good year and made a lot of progress, the fact remains we are still in the process of changing our business and educational model. Given changes in funding sources, the current model, though already changed significantly, simply is not sustainable.
So what is it that we need to change?
First, we need to control the cost of a UT education for students and their families. Twenty years ago, our cost was a small fraction of today’s rates. Now we are just below the national average for public universities, and well below the average of our peer group. Unlike in California and other states, we didn’t respond to the economic downturn and budget shortfalls with massive tuition increases. For Texans, who comprise 92 percent of our undergraduates, tuition is less than $10,000 a year. For a quarter of our freshmen, after scholarships and grants, it’s less than $2,500 per year. That’s less than $10,000 for four years. Meanwhile, state support per student has fallen 41 percent in constant dollars since 1985 and now sits at its lowest point since 1964. Including general revenue, tuition, and AUF funds, we are still thousands of dollars behind our peers in per-student funding.
So we have worked hard to control costs in a very difficult funding environment, but even this model isn’t sustainable. We still have to change. We all agree with that. But the key is we need to change in a focused and strategic way. We can’t just engage in the process of change in an unorganized and unfocused manner. We have to ask: Where does change give us the biggest savings? What are the levers that will move the needle the most, and in a way that will sustain the high quality of our teaching and research?
We started with business practices, and with trimming around the edges. But any realistic assessment of our costs has to take into account the fact that wages and benefits constitute 62 percent of our academic budget, and, as it should be, teaching our undergraduates is the biggest part. So our biggest lever for becoming more productive and containing costs has to concentrate on undergraduate teaching. That’s where the major focus has been, that’s where it is, and that’s where it will be. The challenge is to change in a way that enhances the quality of the undergraduate experience, not detracts from it.
Every productivity gain in history has come from redesigned processes and better capital equipment, not from simplistic calls for making the labor force work longer hours or work faster. Three-crop rotation, the plow harness for horses, and robotics and other technology in factories, these are the ways to increase productivity. So history and experience tell us that redesigning processes and making capital investments should be our focus, not making ideological claims about our faculty’s not working hard enough.
Our faculty work hard. They carry an average of 33 percent more teaching load credits than the UT System requires. And the old saw that senior faculty can’t be bothered teaching undergraduates is just not true. Within our 13 colleges that teach undergraduates 86 percent of our tenured and tenure-track faculty teach undergraduate courses. Papers and articles attacking them are replete with errors. In particular, they averaged full-time administrators in with faculty numbers without compensating for their administrative duties. They averaged in graduate students along with tenured and tenure-track professors. They conflated the job descriptions of assistant, associate, and full professors. And have ignored any research that was not externally funded.
These papers and articles painted a very misleading picture of who we are and what we do on a daily basis.
No doubt in an institution this size, we can find a few faculty members who could be teaching more. But at UT, it is the rare exception and not the rule. The notion that at one of the leading public research universities in the country large numbers of faculty, let alone the majority, are phoning it in is simply absurd. I have been a member of this faculty for 33 years. We have a very productive faculty, one of which I am extremely proud. And, as I said before, we live in a very competitive market for top faculty. We need to make teaching at UT more attractive, not less so. Our System and Board need to start defending our faculty from these attacks.
But we can do a lot to increase productivity. In fact, the single most effective lever for increasing productivity is improving our four-year graduation rates. In May I challenged our campus to achieve a 70 percent four-year graduation rate, and I formed a task force, chaired by Liberal Arts dean Randy Diehl, to work on ways to achieve that goal. Today, I challenge us to achieve this goal in five years.
It will take a combination of designing better pathways through the University, incentivizing students to make the right choices, and holding students to degree plans that lead to timely graduation. At a minimum, increasing our four-year graduation rates by 20 percent would cut about 2,000 “people semesters.” This represents a huge savings, for students, for families, and for UT. As more students graduate in a timely manner, more students could enter the front door, thereby increasing access. Critically, improving graduation rates would not diminish the quality of a UT education and degree. But it is a huge project. We can’t get it done unless we are given room to focus on it.
The second most effective lever is redesigning courses and sequences of courses. Where appropriate, we need to use technology and new knowledge from cognitive science about student learning and success.
We’ll invest about $50 million in these efforts over the next five years. Our coalition of other national research universities can make this effort more effective as we leverage our efforts to design courses, pathways, and curricula for the future. If just 20 national research universities invested $50 million over five years, our collective efforts would have a billion-dollar impact. America’s leading universities should be taking the lead on this issue, and I challenge us to make this commitment.
These two areas – graduation rates and course transformation – are in line with the action plan the Chancellor outlined in August. They show us where we can have the biggest impact on controlling cost and increasing access. And, critically, they do not diminish the quality of a UT education or our ability to attract and retain the best faculty. But they won’t be easy, and they will require our concentrated effort. Like almost everything in life, very little gets done by spreading ourselves too thin. If we try to change everything, we are likely to change nothing.
The Chancellor emphasized the flexibility of his plan, and he recognized that different campuses in our System have different needs. On our campus, our course redesign project and our attention to graduation rates will by far give us the best results. We are organized around them with staffing, resources, and strategic partnerships, and they are where we can move the needle the most. We simply need to be given the space to get them done. If we aren’t, if we are pulled hither and yon from one project to another, we won’t be able to accomplish our mission. Put bluntly, tilting at the windmills of supposed faculty who don’t work hard or who don’t care about our undergraduates – for all the rhetoric about dodgers and coasters – will simply divert us from the real tasks at hand. And it will severely damage our ability to attract and retain our talent.
And on top of all that, giving us this space will do more than anything else to help heal our divided house.
As we forge ahead with these needed changes, there are other exciting possibilities on the horizon. The Chancellor also emphasized health and medical education in Texas, and he made reference to both South Texas and Austin as particular areas of focus. This has already been an area of focus on our campus for the last five years. Austin is the largest city in the United States without a major medical school, and UT Austin is one of only a handful of AAU universities without a medical school, Berkeley and MIT being the other notable exceptions. Not only is the need in Central Texas great, but the scientific basis of modern medicine requires combining great basic scientific research with translation of research and clinical care.
We already have great biomedical teaching and research in our schools of nursing and pharmacy, in our departments of biomedical engineering, kinesiology, and human ecology, in our basic science programs such as chemistry and biochemistry, and in interdisciplinary programs such as the Texas Institute for Drug and Diagnostic Development, the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, the Texas Advanced Computing Center, and the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology, just to name a few. Our programs in social work, law, business, and economics also are working on health care issues.
By creating the Dell Pediatric Research Institute, we have grown in the critical area of translational research that takes ideas from the lab to the bedside. The Seton Healthcare Family and UT Southwestern Medical School have increased the number of residencies and clinical programs in Austin. We also need to work closely with others in the health care community, including St. David’s. Brick by brick, we have made great progress in the last five years. We need to continue to push forward to bring all this together in a medical school.
We can achieve that goal. And we can do it in a way that avoids the fear that it will undermine some of our academic programs, especially those in the humanities and social sciences.
Today is not the time to outline details. Much work has already been done, and much remains to be done. Senator Kirk Watson, who has been a leader in this effort, will be outlining a collaborative plan in the next week. And as we reach an important point in a roughly decade-long effort, I express my support for Senator Watson’s work.
So we have had successes over the last year, and we have plans to face our challenges. But the current climate also requires us to step back and assess – and to affirm – who we are, and the role we play as one of the world’s great teaching and research universities. Heaven knows we need change, but it would profit us not to give up our soul. Put more in the vernacular, we have to be very careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
If you’ll indulge me, I want to talk for a minute about Heraclitus, and Plato, and Parmenides, and Job. Plato recognized that the world consists of change and continuity. Before Plato, Heraclitus had suggested it was all change, saying famously that you can’t step in the same stream twice. After all, they aren’t the same water molecules when you step in it the second time. But common sense tells us that, in some sense, it is the same stream — that the stream does persist over time. When Parmenides saw the same problem, he thought that change must simply be an illusion, not reflecting true reality. And so Zeno said, in his famous paradox, that Achilles’ spear would never really reach its target.
Plato was much more pragmatic. Just look around! We experience change and continuity every day. We’ve got to embrace them both. We can’t explain either one away. So he set out to account for a world with both change and continuity. Details change; essential characteristics – or “forms” – don’t. We see this in everyday life. I am a different person than I was at 50, or 25, or 10. But in my soul, aren’t I still the same? A jazz musician can do extraordinary riffs on “My Melancholy Baby,” but when does it cease being “My Melancholy Baby” at all? I could go on and on with examples.
I’m not here to defend Plato’s particular solution to this philosophical question; indeed, he seems to have changed his mind later in life. Other philosophers have addressed it for over two millennia. I use Plato to pose the critical question we face: how do we change without losing what is essential to our being a great university, both for our students and for society? That’s what our current controversy is about.
A university is an odd institution. Why would we take 18-year-olds – by nearly all measures ready to go out and start contributing to our society – and instead send them outside the workforce on a circuitous multi-year journey? The answer is that 20 years from now, they will have a richer life for it, productively, financially, intellectually, and even spiritually. If enough of them do this, society itself will have a richer collective life. That is the bet we are making, the premise under which we all labor.
In the same way, why would we take some of our best intellects at the age of 40 and tell them to pursue research on esoteric topics of their choosing? Again, the answer is that by doing this they will increase our collective understanding of the world and our place in it. This increased understanding establishes a higher platform from which the next generation goes forward. History has clearly shown that societies with a richer understanding of the world – that is, of science – and a richer understanding of the human condition – that is, of the humanities – are more productive and more civilized in the long run.
Put bluntly, great universities are based on deferred gratification.
I was born nine months almost to the day after the end of World War II. I’m the prototypical Baby Boomer, so I can tattle on my own generation: we don’t have much use for delayed gratification. We want gratification, and we want it yesterday. Now we’re at the height of our societal power – we’re in charge – and I believe this predisposition against delayed gratification has much to do with the debate over higher education in this country.
If the point of a university is mainly to train employees, then scaling it up to industrial dimensions makes all the sense in the world. Huge classes, maximum standardization of curriculum, cheaper labor, and cheaper, mass-produced degrees. But this is not the point of a university, and especially, of The University of Texas.
Our educational mission, especially for our undergraduates, is to cultivate the mind. It is embedded in our university’s very motto: “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.” Helping students think critically, and in subtle and complex ways. Helping them understand the scientific revolution. Helping them understand history and our cultural heritage. Helping them continue to learn, organize their own independent thinking, and express their thoughts effectively and articulately. Learning in a research environment is an essential part of this cultivation.
This is where delayed gratification comes in. The fruits of this type of education are harvested when these students take leadership roles years after graduation to support our democratic way of life, and when they spawn further innovation in business, science, technology, and the arts. Even the satisfaction that one’s life was well and richly lived is an “output” of an education that cultivates the mind.
Not so long ago I was the dean of a professional school, so I understand the value of our students’ acquiring practical skills and credentials for a career. Our course transformation project is based on our belief that redesigned courses and curricula, including technology-based learning, can and needs to play an important role in that, and even in acquiring the traits of a cultivated mind. The point is that in all of these changes, we need to use as a beacon the essence of an education that creates a cultivated mind.
Delayed gratification also affects our inter-related mission of research. Administrators don’t try to direct or censor our faculty’s research; instead we make careful hires and then put our trust in a process that allows them to pursue knowledge. We know from long experience that – in the aggregate – unfettered research yields the greatest long-term return. If we hire the best and tell them: “advance knowledge,” over time, we will get a better result than if we try to guide them from the top down.
Of course, we do sponsor particular research projects with targeted investments, and we do hold our faculty’s feet to the fire to produce high-quality peer-reviewed scholarship. But at the end of the day, we have to stand for knowledge that flows from human curiosity. History tells us that societies that do that do better in the long run.
There are certain human activities that have wonderful effects, but not unless you pursue them for their own sake, and not for the sake of those effects. Athletes, coaches, and sports psychologists know that your best performance comes when you focus on the activity and not on an outcome; when you square up to the plate and put a good swing on the ball, but don’t fret over the result.
Prayer – Prayer can have wonderful psychological benefits. It calms and focuses the mind. But if you’re doing it to calm and focus your mind, you’re not really praying, and you won’t get the result.
Love – Falling or being in love has wonderful effects on your emotions, and your mental health. But if you set out to find a partner so that you’ll get those effects, you’ll never really fall in love.
University research may not be as redemptive as prayer or as exhilarating as falling in love, but in the aggregate it follows a very similar pattern: You get better results if you hire quality people and then trust the process by letting researchers follow their natural curiosity. And you get better professors that way.
Throughout history, there have been those who have stood up for the cause of knowledge for its own sake, and we all are better off for it. When Irish monks spent 100 years copying every book they could get their hands on so that they might save knowledge from barbarians sweeping across Europe, they were putting their faith in the intrinsic value of knowledge, and in time, that knowledge redeemed the West from barbarism and rekindled civilization across the world. They didn’t concern themselves with developing a better catapult or crossbow. They just focused on knowledge. Even manuscripts that were read only by handful of scholars formed a new foundation on which future generations would build, and then build again, and then build yet again. And over time, look what it produced to make the world a better place. Was translating some obscure book from classical Greece just “frivolous”?
That is what research does. It is a collective enterprise. Each article may be but a drop of water, but together, and over time, they create a river that carries us all to a better place.
Before graduating from UT in May, Plan II/biology student Aaron Seo worked in a pediatrics research and immunology lab looking for ways to treat children with autoimmune disorders. During the summer following his freshman year, he worked at UT-M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He’s searching for a molecule that can inhibit the growth of a protein associated with brain cancer. Now he’s gone on to the University of Washington to pursue his MD-PhD. The kind of experience Aaron received as an undergraduate at UT is what a research university is all about. More Aarons mean more cures, but you only get Aarons when you maintain robust research universities where students have strong and accomplished mentors at the cutting edge of their fields.
Foundational education and foundational research always surprise us in ways we could not have predicted or directed. The student who had never heard of venture capital has an IPO ten years later. Another student who had no background in politics becomes a senator. A chemist who had no interest in medicine discovers molecular properties that lead to an elusive cure — those, too, are the “outputs” of a university whose soul strives to cultivate the human mind.
Today, as in every generation, we stand at a crossroads. Our highest task is educating young people to do more than just pull levers. We must train them in the art of critical thinking, and imbue them with a love of learning. And this is anything but a trivial matter. Earlier this year, Newsweek polled 1,000 Americans. 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. 73 percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. 44 percent – close to half – were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar. The problem is not so much that three in 10 don’t know who the vice president is; the bigger problem is that three in 10 don’t care. That is the difference between simply imparting knowledge and cultivating the mind. A university education is predicated on the notion that after the experience, citizens would not only know more, but care more, and make the journey from knowing to caring to acting.
When we look around at our popular landscape we are forced to wonder how much ignorance any democracy can withstand. If our civil society is to endure, we in higher education have to hold up the lantern toward a finer way of life. If universities stand for anything, it should be the pursuit of critical thinking. They should be a countervailing force against the sort of willful ignorance and anti-intellectualism – indeed Philistinism — we see manifested in ways large and small across our culture. To stand for the edifying over the vacuous. The deep over the shallow. The refined over the coarse.
Yes, to return to Heraclitus, the stream changes. But let’s not forget what makes it a stream that does actually persist over time.
Consider a lesson from the Book of Job. Job evokes several themes: patience in suffering, and faith. But it also addresses another theme I’d like to consider: the struggle in human history between ideology and experience.
When Job’s so-called friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, find him covered in boils and sitting in ashes, they insist that he must have sinned against God to be in such a state. That, after all, was the religious dogma of the day, the dogma of the Deuteronomist. Job’s friends were simply parroting this dogma.
But Job knew better. He knew from his own experience that he was a righteous man, so he knew that his friends and their dogma were wrong. His self-knowledge, drawn from his experience, crashed headlong into the prevailing ideology. And we readers know he is right, because we know the real reason for Job’s problems is not his sinning, but instead God’s bet with ha-Satan. In the end, it is the ideology that is proven wrong, and Job’s faith, based on his experience, is rewarded.
Our Founding Fathers took a dim view of simplistic ideological solutions. When they dispersed power between federal, state, and local authorities, and among the three branches of government with checks and balances, it was a sublime expression of putting faith in a process and rejecting a top-down self-assuredness they had experienced in a monarchy.
The University of Texas at Austin is an institution of enormous value to the world. Like a rainforest, its rich diversity of creatures and micro-environments is as delicately balanced as it is productive. If we understand the power of its synergies, and we respect its processes, it can yield cures for society we have yet to even dream of.
From the beginning of my presidency, I’ve stated my belief that The University of Texas at Austin can be and should be the best public university in America. After nearly six years of service in this office, I’m more convinced than ever that this is within our reach. We can get there by following three ideas, stated in just nine words: hire the best … honor the mission … measure the results.
Hiring the best means creating and maintaining an environment in which our faculty are not presumed guilty until proven innocent but instead are empowered to fulfill their life’s calling and to spread their contagious enthusiasm to our students.
Honoring the mission means staying true to the idea – the form – of the research university, respecting its intellectual ecosystem that blends teaching and research at every level, and understanding the untold blessings it has bestowed on society.
Measuring the results means holding ourselves accountable for the success of the institution – whether in access, graduation rates, alumni success, rankings, and most of all, the quality of the education we’re delivering.
If we hire the best, honor the mission, and measure the results, we can – and I believe we will – realize the goal of becoming not just a university of the first class, but America’s top public research university. I thank you all for the part you are playing toward this goal, and I leave you with a question:
Doesn’t Texas deserve the very best?