2019 State of the University Address
September 18, 2019
Remarks as delivered.
President Gregory L. Fenves presented his remarks after being introduced by Faculty Council Chair Brian Evans.
Thank you, Brian for your very kind introduction. I look forward to working with you and the members of the Faculty Council in the months ahead. Please, everyone, let’s give Brian Evans a round of applause.
And I’d like to thank elected members of the Texas Legislature who are here with us this afternoon:
Representative Chris Turner, Chairman of the House Higher Education Committee; and
Representative John Zerwas, who is currently Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, but will soon have a new role as Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs at the UT System.
I thank each of you for your extraordinary public service.
A little over 10 years ago, I was recruited by President Bill Powers to serve as Dean of the Cockrell School at UT — the same university that had given me my first academic job after graduate school. And over this last decade, I’ve seen enormous progress.
Your brilliance and imagination have made our university into one of the finest in the nation. And we are poised to have an even greater impact on society in the years ahead.
But before we talk about the future of UT and where we’re going, I want to take a few moments to look back on these 10 years because, while at times they were challenging, they also represent our university at its very best — resilient, bold, and ambitious.
Ten years …
Ten years ago, we were just beginning to embrace new approaches to improve graduation success for our students.
At that time, a little over 52% of UT students graduated within four years. Today, our four-year graduation rate is 69%.
Further, the graduation rate for African American students has increased 28 percentage points, and the rate for first-generation students has increased 21 points. This profound improvement has been made possible by countless faculty, staff, and academic leaders, and, especially, our students themselves.
Ten years ago, there was no Dell Medical School at UT to train a new generation of doctors, transform health care, and serve the people of Travis County.
Ten years ago, Livia Eberlin and her team hadn’t yet developed the groundbreaking MasSpec Pen to identify cancer during surgery, Karen Uhlenbeck hadn’t won the Abel Prize — mathematics’ highest honor — and “Austin,” the first and only freestanding structure by the artist Ellsworth Kelly, hadn’t been brought to life on the grounds of the Blanton Museum of Art.
And for most of these last 10 years, Longhorn Football struggled to find its way. But if you attended the Texas-LSU game, you know that’s no longer the case. Though our team came up just short against a very tough opponent, all eyes were once again on Austin, Texas, which is how it should be.
And all of this is to say … we have come a long way in 10 years.
And our evolution and growth is also reflected in the personal stories of thousands of faculty, staff, and students. Here’s just one.
In 2012, Camron Goodman was living in Cedar Hill with his mom and sister. He was a junior in high school and doing well, but then, the unthinkable happened — Camron’s mom lost her job. And when it came time for college a year later, Camron passed up his UT admission to stay at home, enroll in community college, and work to help his family. He went on to finish at the top of his class and spoke at his graduation ceremony.
Then, with his associate’s degree, he came to UT to live his lifelong dream of becoming a Longhorn. And he took a job at a Baskin-Robbins in Pflugerville to help pay for his education.
He had to balance late shifts at work with assignments and studying, but he found the support he needed on our campus. He made friends and went on to rise through the ranks of student government. And in March, he was elected Student Government President, along with Vice President Amie Jean. And next year, Camron will again speak at his graduation ceremony but this time representing the UT Class of 2020 in front of tens of thousands of people, under the Tower, as the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
Camron, would you please stand?
Camron’s story is a testament to his persistence and his extraordinary drive to succeed. And there are so many students in our great state who have also overcome difficult circumstances in pursuit of their dreams. Who have attained better lives for themselves and their families through a college education. There is so much potential out there, to be realized.
And the UT System Board of Regents understands this, which is why they took historic action in July.
Under the leadership of Chairman Kevin Eltife, the Regents established a $160 million endowment from the Permanent University Fund to expand financial aid for middle- and low-income UT Austin students as part of the Texas Advance Commitment.
Starting in fall semester 2020, in-state undergraduate students with need from families that earn up to $65,000 a year will receive financial assistance to completely cover their UT tuition. And students with financial need from families with incomes up to $125,000 will also receive some amount of assured financial aid.
This is huge. A major step forward for college affordability in Texas.
Since July — when we first made this announcement — we’ve received a tremendous response. Texas Exes from all around the world have been inspired and motivated by this commitment to our students. And many of our alumni have taken their interest and engagement a step further by asking, “Can we do more?” And the answer, is yes.
I’m pleased to share with you today that we’ve now established the Texas Challenge — a $50 million matching gift program to increase the Regents’ commitment. Every dollar our alumni and friends contribute will go directly to student scholarships, helping to reduce educational costs for highly qualified UT students with financial need.
The Texas Advance Commitment is an investment in the future of our students. And during this past session, the Texas Legislature also made investments of their own. UT received essential funding, and support was increased for Texas Grants, which provides financial aid for students across the state.
I’d like to thank our Longhorn Governor, Greg Abbott, along with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, for their leadership on education.
The Chairman of the House Higher Ed Committee, Representative Chris Turner, and the Chairman of the Senate Higher Ed Committee, Senator Brandon Creighton both did an outstanding job. It is an honor to work with them, and I’m not just saying that because they’re Texas Exes.
Our elected officials deeply understand the importance of higher education, and we, at The University of Texas, are grateful.
The Legislature is doing its part, our alumni are doing their part, and the university continues to make progress. But still, there’s more we need to do to make a college education accessible for all talented students.
At a student government meeting last February, an economics and government double-major named Omar Rios asked me a question about housing. He said the high rents in Austin were a significant concern for many students. And he asked me what the university was doing about it. It was a great question.
Throughout much of UT’s history, Austin was an affordable college and government town. Students could live at reasonable cost in the neighborhoods around campus or nearby in the city. And the housing the university built reflected that. We currently have only around 7,400 spaces in university housing for over 50,000 students. And while that ratio used to work, it doesn’t anymore because of Austin’s rapid growth and a booming housing market, which have forced many students to live far away from campus.
And numerous studies, along with our own data, have shown that proximity to campus during the first year of college directly affects the success of students. So, it’s clear that we need to take action to make university housing more widely available.
But, this isn’t a problem that we can solve quickly. It will require planning, the development of new partnerships and new ways to finance projects, and eventually construction.
We will soon begin working with an experienced consulting firm to conduct a study of student housing at UT. And their recommendations will inform our plans with the eventual goal of being able to offer university housing to all first-year undergraduate students.
And our work has already begun.
In fall of 2020, the housing complex at 2400 Nueces — which UT recently purchased — will be available as a university housing option, adding nearly 700 spaces. Further, I’ve directed University Housing & Dining to begin planning a replacement for the old Creekside dorm. We estimate at this time the new building will add at least 600 new spaces. We will also move ahead with a planned project for graduate housing on the east side of the campus.
These actions mark the beginning of an effort to improve access to housing for students. It will take time to get it right, but our goals are clear.
If a student can’t afford to live in Austin, that’s a barrier to success. And, as a university with a history of denying equitable access to qualified students, it’s our responsibility not to allow barriers but to create opportunities for students from all backgrounds. This responsibility is a reflection of our commitment to diversity and inclusion at The University of Texas.
When we address the problems students face outside the classroom, it enables us to better achieve our purpose. To unlock potential. To inspire, to teach, and to educate in the most dynamic, forward-thinking ways we can.
And as we look toward the future and consider the realities of our students’ lives and careers after graduation, we realize how essential it is that we empower them now. To take charge, gain experience, and design learning opportunities for themselves.
Last year, we inaugurated the President’s Award for Global Learning, which saw seven teams lead projects this past summer in Mexico, India, Lebanon, Ghana, Georgia, South Korea, and Cambodia.
And I want to focus on that Cambodia project for a moment.
UT students Simran Ali, Eunise Chen, Katelyn DeBacker, and Lingyu Kong traveled to the capital city of Phnom Penh to find ways to improve waste management in the urban environment.
Their interdisciplinary team of students and faculty conducted research and collaborated with a local NGO to form a startup. They developed a pilot system to divert organic waste from landfills and train people working in restaurants and markets to sort garbage from reusable materials. Their goal was to introduce responsible waste management from the ground up, and they did just that.
And here on the Forty Acres, students also have many ways to engage in experiential learning.
There’s Bevo Video Productions, a new collaboration between the Moody College and Texas Athletics, where students work alongside broadcast professionals at over 100 athletics events each year to deliver video content and produce shows that will air on the Longhorn Network. There are the philanthropy courses in the College of Liberal Arts and the McCombs School, where students analyze nonprofits and allocate real funds to organizations and causes. And there is the Butler School’s Lab Orchestra, which not only gives students the chance to play and conduct modern compositions, but also to schedule concerts, organize rehearsals, fundraise, and recruit talent.
UT’s colleges, schools, and departments are leading the way, making experiential learning a focus. Ten years ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case. There’s been a major shift in terms of how we teach and prepare our students, and it’s been led by our world-class faculty.
Simply put, the faculty are the heart of the university. Their teaching, research, expertise, and creativity define us. They bring life to our mission, knowledge to our students, and generate ideas and discoveries that have the power to shape the future. And all of the faculty’s work must be done within a culture that is defined by an open exchange of ideas, bringing together leading minds from around the world.
During this past year, we hired over 60 faculty as part of the Faculty Investment Initiative. For example, the Department of Mathematics hired three full professors, and the College of Fine Arts recruited two MacArthur Award-winning playwrights. And we’ll be conducting more than 130 faculty searches for 2019 and 20.
We’ve also established up to 40 new faculty lines for cluster and interdisciplinary hiring — meaning faculty whose areas of expertise cross the boundaries of disciplines and fields.
In March, 80 teams of faculty put forward proposals for the additional interdisciplinary lines. And this summer, Provost Maurie McInnis approved eight of the clusters for hiring over the next few years.
Here are three examples, reflecting the breadth of inquiry across the campus:
Global Internet, Media, and (Dis)Information — where faculty will analyze the potential and perils of a world increasingly connected by the internet;
Good Systems, the third Bridging Barriers Grand Challenge — will workto ensure that the needs and values of society drive the design of artificial intelligence technologies; and
Diversity in Cognitive Functioning in Late Life — with a focus on understanding the distinct effects and impacts of cognitive aging on a range of populations.
I want to thank Provost McInnis for leading the cluster hiring, and the faculty, for identifying these fascinating interdisciplinary fields with tremendous possibilities for new scholarship and even more impact.
As we recruit new faculty, we must also recognize the central role of graduate education at UT, where we have 47 schools and specialties ranked in the top 10 for their disciplines. And graduate education is, of course, defined by graduate students — as students, but also as emerging scholars and educators.
Provost McInnis, Graduate School Dean Mark Smith, and the members of the Graduate Education Taskforce have worked with students and faculty on strengthening graduate education and funding. And with their recommendation, the university approved a $10 million, one-time allocation for both tuition and support for graduate students during this year.
This is just a first step, and I’m looking forward to receiving additional recommendations from the Taskforce in December.
And it should come as no surprise that our donors are getting involved and helping us elevate graduate education.
I’m delighted to announce that this year, with a generous gift from legendary Longhorn Clyde Littlefield’s estate, the College of Liberal Arts will be introducing a new graduate fellowship program — the Clyde Rabb Littlefield Distinguished Graduate Fellows Endowment. It will be used to recruit outstanding graduate students. And the College of Liberal Arts plans to name the inaugural Littlefield fellows in 2020.
Now, I just want to take a moment to discuss two issues that I know have been on the minds of many at our university during these first weeks of the semester.
The right to free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And that freedom has enabled our nation to flourish, evolve, and progress. UT has always been a hub for open discussion and debate, and free expression has always been, a foundational part of our public purpose.
The recently enacted Senate Bill 18 establishes new requirements for universities. The major change that comes from SB 18 is that individuals from outside the university may exercise their free speech and expression rights in the common outdoor areas on campus.
As I announced last month, we have modified UT’s rules to be consistent with state law and are making sure that open discourse — which is central to the university’s work — is carried out according to the law and safely.
I’d also like to address another issue — ethical conduct.
There’s a quote in the Lee Jamail Academic Room in the Main Building that I believe every UT president has been inspired by. It comes from the longest-serving president in the university’s history, H.Y. Benedict. He said, "public confidence is the only real endowment of a state university."
And I would like to add that public confidence requires transparency, a willingness to listen to critical voices, own up to mistakes, and make meaningful improvements.
When you look at the past year at UT, there have been so many extraordinary accomplishments. But in a few instances, there were ethical lapses. These lapses by individuals compromised our ability — as an institution — to carry out our mission and in doing so undermined the public trust, trust that is the bedrock of everything we strive to achieve. We must do better.
Earlier this week, I announced a new initiative — Honor Texas — to sharpen our focus on ethical conduct. I’ve formed an Advisory Committee on Ethics, which will be chaired by Chief Compliance Officer Leo Barnes.
We need to have conversations about integrity. We need to recognize the ethical repercussions of our actions and decisions.
And my hope is that every unit on campus — whether at a faculty or staff meeting, as part of a small work group, or at various events within the colleges and departments — has meaningful discussions about ethical conduct and expectations.
There is only one way to make progress in this area. It begins with dialogue and a commitment to improve. And then, an understanding of accountability can take hold within each individual. That’s what Honor Texas is all about — building that understanding and considering ethics in everything we do at UT.
So, when we look to the future, it’s clear we need to have a strong sense of our values, as well as our goals. And this will empower us to serve society.
I mentioned earlier that 10 years ago there was no Dell Medical School at UT. It’s hard to believe.
Today, the faculty and students at Dell Med — and in many departments, schools, and colleges — are focusing their research on a wide range of health and health care issues.
For example, a team including faculty from Dell Med — in partnership with Ascension Texas — is offering patients at the Dell Seton Medical Center who are struggling with opioid addiction a variety of essential services — including counseling and treatment during hospitalization. This aligns with other opioid-focused research and treatment taking place at UT, which include faculty from the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and the College of Pharmacy.
And earlier this year, in partnership with the Steve Hicks School, Dell Med introduced its new Department of Health Social Work. Which is the first of its kind in the nation — a social work department embedded within a medical school.
With Dell Med and UT Health Austin leading the way, we are making Austin into a model city for health care. And the university also has a profound effect on many other areas of Texas life. We are making our state more vibrant in so many ways. Take education, as one example.
Our College of Education prepares more than 350 education professionals in Texas schools each year. During the past five years, the college has graduated more than 1,500 teachers, 100 principals, and numerous counselors and administrators. Together, they will serve students in every grade and every part of Texas, from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley.
To help small-business owners in rural Texas, the IC2 Institute is funding nine new projects, focusing on entrepreneurship in small towns and cities. This includes one led by LBJ School professor Varun Rai that will explore the relationship among economic booms and entrepreneurial activity in West Texas. The results will be used to inform policymakers, energy producers, and local governments on how to sustain vibrant rural economies.
A couple of weeks ago, we held a dedication ceremony at the Texas Advanced Computing Center for Frontera — the fastest supercomputer at any university in the world. Frontera will enable researchers to apply extraordinary computing power to a vast range of problems — from tracking hurricanes to analyzing the spread of disease. Because of Frontera and TACC’s collective supercomputing capabilities, UT is now the premier university for high performance computing.
In 2018, the U.S. Army selected Austin as the home of its new Army Futures Command. And they did this because UT would be one of their most dedicated partners. Today, faculty experts in robotics are working closely with the Futures Command. And we are currently renovating the Anna Hiss Gym to become an immersive space for faculty, students, and Army personnel to collaborate on robotics research and develop new technology.
And the funding for the Anna Hiss Gym renovation was provided in part by the UT System Board of Regents, along with a budget that included an increased allocation of AUF funds to bolster our educational mission and faculty recruitment. With the vision of Chairman Eltife, the Regents have invested in students while reducing bureaucracy as part of budgeting and planning. I am grateful for Chairman Eltife’s strong leadership at the Board of Regents.
With the backing of the Board of Regents, the university is poised to thrive in the years ahead. But what do we want to do with our future? What do we want to accomplish?
Last month, our country lost one of its greatest authors, Toni Morrison. She wasn’t only a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. She was also a teacher, a professor at Princeton, for decades. And she once wrote, “If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
And when we examine the idea at the core of her extraordinary insight, we see a call to action that transcends discipline, medium, and time. An affirmation that if we look within ourselves, we can find knowledge in our past, inspiration for our future, boundless creativity, and answers to our most profound questions.
And as we look forward, we see so many questions that need answering.
What is the future of knowledge? What are the areas of research and scholarship where UT’s leadership would have the greatest impact?
And education is always about the future, but what will that future be for our students? What will their jobs, careers, and lives look like in a world and an economy that are rapidly changing?
And in Texas, the second-largest and one of the fastest-growing states, what should this flagship university be known for in serving the state 10 years from now?
As a university, we have a duty to answer these questions. Or, to echo Toni Morrison’s words, we have the power to write the book on these ideas for ourselves.
So, let’s look ahead.
In 2033, The University of Texas will celebrate its 150th anniversary, our sesquicentennial. And though it is more than a decade away, now is the time for us to start considering what we want this university to be known for at that milestone. Now is the time to think big. Now is the time to be bold.
So today, I’m announcing the formation of the Council for TEXAS Impact.
The Council’s purpose will be to think deeply about the future and identify key areas where UT can have the most impact on Texas, the nation, and the world.
The Council will be chaired by professors Bobby Chesneyin the School of Law and Lauren Meyers in the College of Natural Sciences. It will include more than 20 members of the faculty, as well as three students and two staff representatives.
But I want everyone — I mean everyone — to be engaged with the goals of this Council.
Which is why we’ll be hosting a series of university forums over the coming months. I want you to bring your boldest ideas. I want to hear your voices. I want this Council to reflect our vision as a university.
And when we think ahead to the 150th anniversary, there will be a Commission of 150 to help us look even further. And I want that sesquicentennial commission to point back to this moment to see that choices were made by a university community that was creative and ambitious.
At UT, we say, “What Starts Here Changes the World.” With the Council for TEXAS Impact, we will think about what that world will look like decades from now and imagine the breakthroughs, discoveries, and goals we should focus on to change it for the better.
I hope all of you will join me in this effort.
Over the past decade, I have seen that this is a university like no other. The scope of our influence is enormous. We cut our own paths. We create our own trends.
And as a result, people everywhere are looking to us to lead. They are looking to The University of Texas.
A few months ago, I was in Ithaca, New York, for my college reunion.
One morning, I went on a run along the gorges. Then I stopped to have a cup of coffee. And as I waited in line, I saw this guy, also in town for the reunion, giving me a funny look. He kept staring at my shirt and asked why I was wearing a Longhorn.
I told him I worked at UT. And then we started talking. He told me about his three kids, each of whom had graduated from or was now attending UT. They had different majors, and their dad said the university had changed their lives and helped define them as individuals.
I’m sure that many of you have been in this same situation. Someone sees your hat, or a license plate, or a sweater, and they flash you a Hook ’em sign, or they talk to you about their college experience here at UT.
Anywhere we go — from small towns to big cities — across this great state and to nations around the world, we meet Texas Exes and we feel the impact our university has on people everywhere.
And UT has always had that effect. It has always had that distinct ability.
And when we think about the future, we have a responsibility to make good on the promise of our potential. To expand our influence. To be bold. To reach even higher heights.
We did that over these past 10 years. You did that. And you can do it again for the next decade and for generations to come.
Thank you, and Hook ’em Horns.