Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Thank you all very much. It’s a privilege to be here at the Austin Rotary Club and a pleasure to speak about our combined interests on the future of The University of Texas at Austin and our great city of Austin.
Since 1913, the Rotary Club of Austin has pursued its “Service Above Self” philosophy. And all of us in Austin have benefitted from your service. We are a better city and a stronger community because of all of you.
The University of Texas is also about service — service to society. That is our mission that is pursued every day through education and research by great faculty and students. And much like the Rotary Club — and the many businesses you represent — we take seriously our obligation to service.
Part of what makes UT successful is our location. Austin isn’t just our neighborhood. We are The University of Texas at Austin. And from the university’s earliest beginnings in 1883, UT has mattered to Austin — and Austin has mattered to UT. We work well together. And there is even more that we can do together to achieve a brighter future and a better tomorrow for our university and our city.
Many years ago, the eminent sociologist and U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked how to create a world class city.
“Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.”
What Moynihan knew then and what is still true now is this: A university is an investment whose benefits are reaped by everyone in the community, for generations to come. This is one of the best means of service that any university can offer — to provide leaders, creativity and innovation that fuel the economy and the community.
We can see how this symbiotic relationship is helping build a world-class city and a world-class university. And I have been privileged to watch some of this first-hand.
I started my academic career at UT in 1984 as an assistant professor in engineering. At that time, Austin had just emerged as a technology center with the establishment of MCC and the founding of the most successful startup in Austin’s history, Dell Computer. My wife Carmel and I shopped at a little grocery store. It was a bit more expensive, but it offered products not found at a regular grocery store. It was called Whole Foods Market.
And during that time UT Austin was changing too. President Peter Flawn was leading the “war on mediocrity” by focusing on faculty excellence, which is the heart of every great university. Thanks to the Legislature and generous benefactors, the establishment of endowed chairs at that time allowed the university to recruit some of the best scholars in the world.
Twenty years later, when Carmel and I were considering returning to UT, we were stunned how much Austin had changed since we left in 1987. First, we saw the transformation of Austin as an innovative and creative city, with a vibrant downtown core, a strong economy, very active business environment, a music and arts center, and a diverse community committed to social good. Second, the progress of UT begun under Dr. Flawn, and continued by subsequent presidents, was evident in the stature of many academic programs, the quality of education, the excellence of the faculty including members of the National Academy, and the impact and volume of research.
It’s true that while change is inevitable, progress is a choice. It was clear to me that both Austin and UT had chosen to embrace progress. And Carmel and I wanted to be a part of that again. And so seven years ago we returned to the university and the city.
And now I have the privilege of leading The University of Texas at Austin. And one of the things that has become increasingly apparent to me is that while the university’s home is in Austin: Our work matters throughout the state, the nation and the world. The University of Texas belongs to the people of Texas. All Texans are shareholders in what we do. They expect the best, they deserve the best and we are committed to that goal.
And to be the best — one of the greatest advantages UT has in the pursuit of excellence is its location in one of the most dynamic and important cities in the United States, and the unique partnerships we have with our community. For us to realize our mission, I believe that UT and Austin must continue to strengthen our partnership. We must continue to serve together. And we must continue to be good neighbors — something that is not always the case between universities and the cities in which they are located. Being good neighbors means we look for ways to continue to work together for common solutions to common challenges.
Here is one recent example of how UT and the city of Austin have recently did that.
We worked together to resolve years of controversy over university development in the eastern portion of our campus. UT collaborated with the community, especially the Blackland Community Development Corp, on a master plan for that portion of campus. Thanks to the good efforts of many people on the plan, graduate student housing will soon be under construction along Leona Street, and a new parking garage will take cars off the streets of East Austin during athletic events.
As we continue to look to the future, what are the ways we can work together even more to not just advance UT’s ambitions but also Austin’s?
Let’s take education — our core business. We are already working closely with Austin Community College and Austin ISD on multiple fronts to expand educational opportunities for our community. For example, we have partnered with President Richard Rhodes and his team at ACC to establish an innovative co-enrollment program, and our work with Superintendent Paul Cruz and AISD high schools enables nearly a thousand AISD students to take innovative UT courses for credit through our OnRamps initiative. We look forward to expanding our work with ACC and AISD.
On our campus, our faculty and academic departments are developing next-generation degree programs through a new initiative called Project 2021. In particular, the next chapter of undergraduate education at UT will embrace the integration of research and education even more closely. From freshman orientation to graduation four years later, all our undergraduates will have multiple opportunities to participate in discovery and creativity. We will do this on- and off-campus, through participation in projects, fieldwork, internships, service and our many student success initiatives. Many of these projects and internships will occur in our community and with your businesses.
Our faculty are asking hard questions about what are the needs of students and society, what distinguishes graduates from their programs, and how they might leverage new approaches to pedagogy, technology and experiential learning. An important part of our mission is to develop tomorrow’s leaders by blending content knowledge with transformative learning experiences. Much of this experiential learning will directly impact Austin through our students’ work in the Austin economy and these experiences will lead many of our students to build their careers, companies, and families here. These opportunities will only be possible because of the uniquely vibrant and creative Austin community.
We also can work together on research. Each year, UT invests more than $600 million on research. That is money that helps fuel the local economy. And much of this research translates into innovations in science and technology, which in turn leads to economic development.
And we work together on Dell Medical School. Six short months from now, the first cohort of Dell medical students will begin their classes. This is a great achievement for UT and for our community: It’s the first new medical school at a major research university in the U.S. in half a century. This wouldn’t be possible without our partners, Central Health and the voters of Travis County, and the Seton Health Care Family. Dell will not just be a new medical school, but a different kind of medical school. One that we know will rethink medicine and healthcare right here in Austin. Our goal is for Austin to be a model healthy city. What other community in the U.S. would take the step with voters approving a tax increase for a medical school? And why did they do that? They did it to help improve everyone’s health and as an investment in our collective future.
So as you can see there are many opportunities for us together. But as we look on the horizon, we can see other challenges that will require leadership. UT will have to begin thinking about options and opportunities. Let me share three of these with you.
First, we must address the Brackenridge Tract. Most people in Austin are familiar with this area in West Austin. Col. Brackenridge willed the “Brack Tract” to UT for the express purpose to benefit the university. At UT, we appreciate the great history of the land, including the historic role of the Lions Municipal Golf Course in the cause of racial integration. I know there have been several committees and proposals over the past 10 years, but with the Golf Course lease expiring in 2019, now is the time to begin a process for thinking through the possibilities of how this magnificent land can be used that fulfils the terms of the Brackenridge bequest. I look forward to exploring all options, all ideas and input from the community.
Second, we must create an Innovation Zone, which is an idea that has been led by Sen. Kirk Watson. If you have been to Cambridge, Massachusetts, you have perhaps noticed how Kendall Square, across the street from MIT, has blossomed into one of the most significant innovation zones in the world. With the opening of Dell Medical School, we have a unique opportunity to create that kind of excitement and economic development right here in Austin. The key is proximity to the university. Imagine research and development labs across the street from the new medical school. Imagine students leaving the classroom or lab and walking across the street to gain real-world experience. Imagine the new ideas, especially in the biotech and health tech sectors, that could bloom right around the medical school. Imagine the tremendous benefit that the entire city of Austin would experience. I want to thank Sen. Watson and also Mayor Adler for their efforts in envisioning the future of an Innovation Zone.
Finally, we must consider options for a new arena. As many of you know, one of the key decisions in the 2012 university master plan was where to locate the new medical school. You can see the construction now; but that is Phase I. Medical schools grow rapidly, and the master plan has Phase II located at the current site of the Erwin Center.
When Coach Shaka Smart was hired last spring, I made him a promise: We would build a new arena. The Erwin Center, now 40 years old, has served the university and the people of Austin well; but it’s clearly in its twilight years and ready for retirement. How and where we build a new arena and what it will be are questions we have yet to resolve. And all ideas are on the table.
It takes a team to compete inside an arena — it also takes a team to complete an arena. At this point, we look forward to beginning the conversations about what is possible.
So as you can see, the next few years are going to be filled with opportunities for the university and for our community. I know that we can find ways to not only do things right, but do the right thing for all of us.
When the Texas Constitution of 1876 was written, it called for the establishment of a “university of the first class.” When it opened its doors in 1883, the university was then and continues to this day to be one of the state’s most unique and valuable assets with the mandate of pursuing excellence.
At UT, we have an obligation to be the best, to reach new heights and to soar to even loftier altitudes.
And we are thankful to live and work in a city that has demonstrated so many times its willingness to work with us to find common ground and common solutions.
Thank you for inviting me. Thanks for listening. And thanks for supporting The University of Texas at Austin.
I’d be happy to take any questions you may have.