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Originally published in the Dallas Morning News.
Dean of undergrad studies works tirelessly to improve school, says Bill Powers
Professor Paul Woodruff once told his interviewer, Bill Moyers: “I came back from Vietnam thinking that I really shouldn’t do anything that didn’t matter to people’s lives. It was hard for me to figure out how to pursue a scholarly life in the way that I’d been taught and take on issues that really matter to people.”
But take on those issues he did, and broaden the minds of thousands of Texans he has. For this ethic and for his tireless service to one of Texas’ most important institutions, I nominate my friend and colleague Paul Woodruff for Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.
Paul is far from a native Texan and took a circuitous route to get here: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Oxford and Vietnam. With his ever-present bow tie, neither does he fit the Lone Star stereotype. But when he arrived in Austin in 1973 to join the University of Texas philosophy faculty, his life and that of the university became inseparably linked, each acting on the other at a profound level.
Paul threw himself into scholarship, teaching and service to the university. A classicist specializing in Plato, Thucydides and Socrates, he made a huge impact on the university and state as director of UT’s venerable Plan II honors program, building a program that offered an Ivy League-quality education to thousands of Texans.
When I became president of the university in 2006, the university had just gone through a two-year, citizen-led strategic planning process known as the Commission of 125, and one of its central recommendations was a renewed focus on excellence in undergraduate education. I knew that one of the most powerful things I could do would be to appoint Paul the first dean of undergraduate studies. His spirit of service to the institution and his world-renowned intellect made him the natural choice to chart a new path for undergraduates in need of greater direction. We followed this appointment with the creation of the School of Undergraduate Studies, which Paul is still leading through its formative years.
All the while, he has been writing books that have brought prestige to the university and the state of Texas by our association with him—books like Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, which, among other things, examined questions raised by Sept. 11, and First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. In his 2008 book, The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, he argues that our need for theater is hard-wired, and he simultaneously broadens the definition of theater from merely stage dramas to sports arenas, wedding ceremonies and even the barista who prepares your morning coffee with particular flair “to the admiring gaze of her customers.” His most recent book The Ajax Dilemma, explores the challenge of how we reward those who play different roles in society.
Through all of his work, he takes the lofty concepts of classical Greek thought and leverages them ingeniously as potent tools for understanding the modern world in fresh and interesting ways.
Perhaps the most telling detail of Paul’s career is the table. Tired of leading seminars at clunky, rectangular tables, where people sitting at the long edges had to peer around each other to converse, Paul, also a handy woodworker, set out to find a fix. Over two months, he designed and built a 20-seat elliptical seminar table, the two foci that created its harmonious shape standing for art and science.
The ellipsis enabled better learning by allowing everyone at the table an easy sight line to everyone else. The table was so popular that the university made copies of it for each of our seminar rooms in the Main Building. Paul’s seminar table, as beautiful in form as it is perfect in function, is a fitting emblem of his restless intellect, his tireless work ethic and his convening, nurturing spirit.
For the thousands of current students benefiting from his leadership, for the many more thousands of alumni in leadership positions across Texas and around the world who have benefited from the programs he has shaped, and for those whose lives he has enriched by his body of thought-provoking work, Paul Woodruff is my Texan of the Year.