Presidential Inauguration and State of the University Address
September 24, 2021
President Jay Hartzell presented his remarks after being introduced by Kevin P. Eltife, Chairman, The University of Texas System Board of Regents.
Thank you, Chairman Eltife. You’re a true leader in business, public service, and in higher education. You understand the transformative role that this university plays in the life of our great state. Quite simply, you’re a true friend and fierce champion of your alma mater.
I’d like to thank the entire Board of Regents for placing their trust in me. It’s just an incredible honor to be inaugurated as the 30th President of The University of Texas at Austin.
Thank you also to Chancellor James Milliken. The Chancellor has been a constant source of wisdom and support, and I am fortunate to be able to work with him.
As I’ve told some of you, I may have gotten some bad luck in my first year as president. But, I’ve had great luck in being able to work with the Chairman, these Regents, and this Chancellor.
Having this ceremony a year after getting the job means you’re less likely to see a shocked look on my face. While the surprise has diminished, the honor and my enthusiasm have not. Today is extremely special — but then again, how can a day not be special, when you are given a mace and a medallion? It’s a day I proudly share with my wife Kara, my children Robbie and Anna, my parents, and all my family and friends who couldn’t be here.
Like many of you, I’m not a native Texan. But as the bumper stickers attest, we all got here as soon as we could. I grew up in Oklahoma and came to Texas to attend Trinity University in San Antonio. That’s where Kara and I met on my 18th birthday.
Trinity was possible for me because of a scholarship. I met and worked for a professor there, Dr. Phil Cooley, who hired me to help with his finance textbook. Years later, when I was at a crossroads, he encouraged me to get a Ph.D. instead of an MBA and offered to write me a letter to Texas and a couple of other schools. I never thought I’d get a Ph.D. in anything, so I was unprepared.
But Dr. Cooley encouraged Professor Laura Starks, who’s here today, to take a bet on me. I swear I must have been the last person admitted to the UT finance Ph.D. program that year. She became my dissertation adviser, co-author and mentor — just as my mom is here today, I think of Laura as my academic mom, and I am so grateful for her.
We all have stories, and mine echoes many of the themes I encounter every day at UT — the power of higher education for both individuals and society, the role of faculty who mentor and inspire, and the capacity of scholarships to provide a chance and change lives.
I’m incredibly grateful for UT. This university took a chance on me. I received great training and mentoring here from the faculty, formed lifelong friendships, and somehow landed an amazing academic job at NYU when I graduated.
In 2001, I was given the chance to return to UT as a professor. I remember getting off a phone call with Laura Starks. I turned around and saw Kara — and saw that she had already packed our bags.
I’ve been at UT for the last twenty years. I’ve been a student, a professor, a dean, and now president. I love this place, and I love working with you all. My commitment to you — whether you’re a staff or faculty member, a student, an alum, a supporter, or one of the thousands who will call us home in the future — is to do my best to lead UT to amplify its impact on every life it touches, allowing each of us to realize our potential.
Reflections on first year as president
My first year as president has been — how can I put it — eventful. I know the last year or so has been that way for you as well. Let’s be honest: We’ve all worked our tails off despite a lot of stress and frustration. I’m incredibly proud of how we’ve approached things. As we’ve navigated the pandemic and other issues, we’ve consistently placed our chips on the positive — the goodwill and talents of those around us — our faculty, staff and especially, our students. Those bets have paid off.
Moving forward, and moving up: people, place and pursuits
Moving forward, we’re going to keep focusing on the positive. I am so grateful to work with this leadership team — our provost, Sharon Wood, the deans, vice presidents and deputies on stage here today. As a team, we’ve been engaged with each other and our community in countless conversations about UT and our future — who we are and where we can go as a university. These conversations are shaping our shared vision for the university and our strategy for our next decade of growth.
Such conversations start with a basic question: What is our goal? Do we want to be the top-ranked public research university? And, what do we even mean by that? Or, do we want to have the prestige or selectivity of Ivy League institution? Do we want to boast that our graduates go on to earn the highest salaries or go to the best graduate schools?
These are all good things, but as a leadership team, our aspiration is much broader. For us, a word that keeps coming up again and again in our conversations is IMPACT.
UT has an incredible combination of advantages, and we’re in a unique position. With those, how can we do more to change the world? The flag we’re planting is that UT should become the world’s highest-impact public research university.
Let’s unpack that for a minute. I know from our alumni that impact often emerges as a career goal later in life once we reach a certain level of professional success and security. As academics, we often follow similar paths. Dreams of Nobel Prizes in graduate school often take a backseat to just trying to graduate, land a job, get promoted or get tenure. But at some point, top academics begin to focus on impact again — publishing another paper or book is great, but how can we really change the way our field understands, thinks about, or experiences the world around us?
UT has undergone a similar journey. The Texas Constitution called for a “University of the First Class.” But initially, we were essentially a startup university in a fledgling state. Now, we are the academic engine of the country’s most thriving state — and we happen to be situated in the state’s most dynamic city where everybody wants to live.
It’s the time in our journey where we can focus on impact. The concept can inspire and guide us just as it sharpens our focus.
So, how do we have a greater impact? What are our inherent advantages? What are the opportunities we can explore or the needs we can serve? In what areas can we lead, innovate and excel together over the next decade and beyond? We are putting together a shared strategic road map of opportunity for our campus so we can all answer the question, “How do we become the world’s most impactful public research university?”
Today, I want to give you some preliminary thoughts on this critical question. How do we have greater impact? In short, it’s a matter of people, place and pursuits. That is, we create the greatest impact by focusing on our people, taking advantage of our place, and honing our pursuits.
We’ve been working on this over the past year, and we’ve done some great things in the face of pretty strong adversity. We’ve hired some great leaders. We’ve championed free speech. We made UT’s biggest ever investment in graduate education. We’ve launched new degrees and academic programs. Our doctors, pharmacists and nurses have cared for thousands in need. Our faculty helped develop the vaccines that made gathering here today even possible. We even found a rather elaborate way to resume a home-and-home rivalry with a certain university in the state — even if we have to wait until 2025 to do so.
We have so much more to come. We’re going to have even greater impact by pulling together great people in this special place and pursuing the right things.
Let’s start with people. As I heard our incredible swimming coach, Eddie Reese, say one time, “There are no great places, only great people.” UT is living proof of that — and we are in the people business. As an institution, we work hard to bring together the best and brightest students, brilliant faculty, exceptional staff, and an incredible alumni base. When we do that, good things tend to happen.
I know this from personal experience. Without Professor Cooley at Trinity and Professor Starks here at UT, my life would have been very different. What’s amazing is that these things happen every day on the Forty Acres. My guess is that if you reflect on your journey with or through UT, you’ll be able to point to some similarly transformative moments and people.
Let me give you an example. Shawn Lee graduated in May from the Cockrell School. As a freshman, he connected with the Texas Rocket Engineering Lab, or TREL for short. They’re a student group developing the first collegiate liquid bipropellant rocket to reach the Kármán line — the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. That’s a pretty awesome project, right? About like what we did when we were in college?
It was Shawn’s academic adviser, Sarah Kitten, who connected him to the lab. A faculty member and TREL’s director at the time, Dr. Leon Vanstone, soon became Shawn’s mentor. These experiences didn’t just provide Shawn with knowledge. They taught him how to build cool teams as well as cool stuff. Shawn went on to mentor other students and eventually served as TREL’s CEO and director of operations. He interned at Blue Origin, a rocket and spacecraft company with the mission of building a road to space. Shawn now works for them full time. With people and stories like these, we’ve joked that we may need to change our tagline to “What starts here changes the universe.”
Remember how Shawn found the rocket lab? It was his adviser, Sarah. This is an example showing that leadership and excellence, and so much of what we do on campus, are made possible by our staff, like Sarah. Other examples of our staff’s impact have been clear from the pandemic. From supporting students, to administering nearly 150,000 doses of the vaccine, to communicating with our community, our response to COVID-19 hasn’t just been made possible by staff — it’s been led by them. For UT to have greater impact, it’s more important for us than ever for us to have an incredible, well-supported staff. Meanwhile, the landscape keeps changing, and as new companies move to town, we’re competing with them to recruit and retain the best talent.
I’m therefore committed to increasing the investment we make in our staff. We will pursue initiatives that will provide our staff with greater opportunities to learn, develop, and add skills. We can better utilize our breadth and scale to help our staff find ways to grow and in many cases, stay here for their entire careers. Our people believe in our noble mission, but we need to also improve how we work. We’re going to pursue massive upgrades of our IT, HR and procurement systems in order to more effectively pursue excellence on campus. I want every single staff member on this campus to hear me — we cannot be the institution we want without you. Making UT the best place to work in Austin is one of my top priorities.
A key to who we are as Longhorns is our diversity. It’s one of our greatest assets. In my mind, diversity and excellence are inseparable. We know from research that diverse teams tend to produce better and more creative outcomes. This shouldn’t surprise us. Ability transcends race, gender, class or any particular way of thinking. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being pushed by somebody who didn’t see the world exactly the same way we did. This is important on a college campus, just as it’s important beyond one. And, if we’re going to serve our state, it is on us to serve our whole state — talent and potential are everywhere.
We continue to make progress in cultivating a diverse and inclusive community. Take our student body: 20 years ago, just over 3% of our undergraduate students were Black. Fewer than 12% were Hispanic. Today, those percentages have doubled, and UT now educates over 13,000 students from historically underrepresented groups. Just last year, we qualified as a Hispanic Serving Institution and were one of only a few universities to be awarded the Seal of Excelencia for our commitment to serving Latino students. Over the last 10 years, our four-year graduation rate has gone from around 50% to over 70%, with large increases for all groups. We’re not just getting a more diverse range of students to come to campus. They’re succeeding here.
Obviously, we’re not done yet. But our size and scale mean that even small, proportional increases have large and powerful effects. Imagine, for example, an elite university in America dedicated to providing first- generation students with a first-class education. There is one and it’s us. First-generation students make up nearly a quarter of our undergraduate student body — that’s nearly 9,400 students a year, more than the total number of undergraduates enrolled at Dartmouth and Princeton, combined. Or, imagine an elite public university dedicated to welcoming and serving international students and scholars. Again, there is one and it’s us. There are nearly 8,000 international scholars and students here on campus.
My point is this: When done at scale, even incremental change can have huge impact. And we’re going to do more than incremental. Moving forward, we will refresh our commitment to being a place where people’s lives are transformed, where they are mentored, inspired, equipped and empowered to go out and change the world. In doing so, we’re going to also focus more intentionally on what it means to be a Longhorn. By cultivating a common culture — one that embraces diversity and traditions, excellence and belonging, arts and sciences, students and alumni, staff and faculty — Longhorn Nation will be united as a community and able to harness our talent at scale for the betterment of society.
In addition to being defined by our people, we’re also defined by our place. Being in Austin, Texas, sets us apart from other institutions — in part, because it creates a specific set of opportunities for us. With all due respect to our friends in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Chapel Hill, they are not in Austin, and they’re not in Texas. At this moment, we are in a place that others find it very hard to compete with.
By design, we’re interwoven with Texas. Historically, we’ve relied on Austin as a great place to live, surrounded by the business hubs of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Tyler — Mr. Chairman, that last one was for you.
Now, things are different — so we have different opportunities. People are flocking to Texas from all over the world. Austin has a different intensity. It’s a seat of government, a tech hub, an economic engine, an incubator for creativity, a center for nonprofits and think tanks, and with the growth and innovation of the Dell Medical School, an emerging place for world-class health care. To amplify our impact, it’s on us to embrace the unique advantages our place provides us.
One way we can do so is to use the current energy, skills and ambition of Austin and Texas to not only innovate more on campus, but also to help more of the ideas we generate turn into real-world solutions. To do so requires a change of mindset.
Earlier this year, UT and the Army Futures Command hosted the Advanced Technology Summit. One of the panels featured Dr. Evan Erickson, a former research fellow here. He’s now CEO of TexPower, a company born at UT that’s on the cutting edge of battery technology. As Evan explained to the participants that day, “There is a world of entrepreneurship and commercialization that you can do, [but] this mindset isn’t very well-trained in you as a scientist.” He’s right, and I would argue that gap doesn’t only apply to scientists.
To that end, we’re going to unveil a new initiative this fall. It will include a new set of programs, practices, resources and engagement with industry partners and alumni — all to help faculty and student innovators take their ideas to practice. This will complement the growing set of academic and experiential opportunities in entrepreneurship that our students are excited about and that I’ll talk more about later.
There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be one of the world’s leading academic engines for innovation, new companies and future jobs. If we combine our talent base, our strengths in STEM fields, our emerging expertise in health care, our connections both with our alumni base and state and local ecosystems, we’ll have a huge impact in ways that are hard to even predict.
We can also have impact by addressing the challenges of being here at this moment in time. That’s why I’ve asked Professor Allan Cole of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work to take on a new role as Deputy to the President for Societal Challenges and Opportunities. Allan’s job is to bring our collective resources and expertise to bear on difficult issues that are especially acute locally, such as affordable housing, homelessness and mental health. I’m excited to see how UT can make a difference thanks to these efforts.
We have always been blessed to be in Austin, Texas. Some of the reasons why have changed. In a nutshell, we should make the campus perimeter more permeable — make it easier for faculty and students to engage with companies, nonprofits and our city. And, we should make it easier for the ideas and innovations that start on the Forty Acres to find their way into practice, to better serve our state and society.
So far, I’ve focused on our people and our place. This begs the question, what will we pursue? What kinds of research and teaching activities will maximize our impact?
The pandemic has raised many questions about how universities will deliver education in the future. A consistent theme I’ve heard this semester is the joy felt by so many of our faculty and students when they’ve been able to be back in the classroom together. In so many cases, the magic happens when we get great faculty and great students together in person and support them with amazing staff and resources. Technology doesn’t change this. High tech and high touch must go hand in hand. So should science and the humanities.
To take an example, Erika Bsumek is a historian here and a member of our Academy of Distinguished Teachers. Several years ago, she noticed that some of her students were struggling to connect the events and trends they studied. Erika thought, “What if they could visualize these connections?” She researched software platforms to find something she could use in the classroom that would combine timelines, mind mapping, and visualization. That didn’t exist — so, she invented it. Working with UT’s Simulation and Game Applications Lab, she designed ClioVis.
Erika compares ClioVis to a wall of photos and clues on a detective’s white board. The platform enables students to connect the dots of the past, sort information, determine patterns, and find meaning. ClioVis is an example of what undergraduate pedagogy in the 21st century should look like — immersive, collaborative and hands-on, with technology supporting rather than diluting the residential experience.
It’s not enough to just think about how to teach — we must continue to innovate in terms of what we teach. Erika is innovating in terms of pedagogy — and by doing so, she’s helping more students see the benefits of studying history and the liberal arts. The leaders of tomorrow need these skills to handle whatever the world will throw their way. They should be critical thinkers and problem solvers, able to construct persuasive arguments, collaborate with diverse people, appreciate creative arts and the poetry of the human condition. Our society needs such people, too — as UT’s motto puts into Latin the words of Mirabeau Lamar, “the cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.”
Another way we can better teach our students is to continue to enhance our interdisciplinary programs. If there’s one word I’ve heard more over the last 18 months than “unprecedented,” it’s “silos” — usually in reference to how UT operates and not as a compliment. We can continue to do better to break down those silos for our students. A recent example of this is the Master of Arts in Design Health program, a collaboration between Dell Med and Fine Arts. We need more of these sorts of hubs, forming partnerships across campus that apply interdisciplinary thinking to the world’s complex challenges.
As I alluded to earlier, we can also do more to help students cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset that can be applied to a startup, a social cause, or an artistic production. We have a history of things starting here — from Dell Computer to Tiff’s Treats to Casper — plus, great people and an ideal location to spur student innovation. We’re on our way to being recognized as the leading public university in this area, with a new entrepreneurship minor and the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute. Furthermore, thanks to a significant investment from an alum, John Harkey, we’re accelerating these efforts further. You’ll be hearing more about the creation of the Harkey Institute for Entrepreneurship in the coming months. John, thank you.
The two institutes I just mentioned — John Harkey’s and Kendra Scott’s — were made possible because of those individual’s vision and support. In March, we’ll launch our What Starts Here Campaign — a Texas-sized effort to invite even more of our friends to invest in UT’s future. When we roll this out, some will be tempted to focus on dollars and cents that make for easy headlines. Instead, I’d like for us to focus on impact. Just as we want our university to have the greatest impact of any public research university, our incredible alumni base, all 550,000 or so strong, can be the highest-impact alumni base in the country. This is so much more than dollars and cents. We’re going to lean on them more and more when it comes to mentoring and networking opportunities for our students. Our alumni are such an incredible asset. We need to be asking ourselves for almost everything we pursue, “have we considered how our alumni can help us?”
We clearly create impact through the education we provide our students. We also create impact through our research, scholarship and creative endeavors. We want UT to be known for work that changes the way the world thinks and lives.
From advanced materials to AI, we know that basic research will always underpin groundbreaking research. But I want us to be known for both. Take Jason McLellan’s work on spike proteins, a story I’m hoping you all know by now — and if you don’t, please Google it! Their development was based on years of basic research — but, when the world called, he was ready. Today, spike proteins developed at UT are used in all the leading COVID-19 vaccines. Talk about high impact! Like Jason, we need to pursue our work with the groundbreaking and the life-changing in mind.
To use a baseball metaphor, we’re seeking a culture of research, scholarship and the arts that produces more home runs and not just more singles and doubles. That requires hiring and supporting ambitious faculty, postdocs and graduate students. That requires celebrating and rewarding the big wins. That also means that we need to give our faculty the time and space to take risks, to be able to swing, even though there will be misses. To provide such space for our faculty, one of our emerging priorities is to join other elite universities in offering dedicated time for our star faculty members to think deeply. The academic term you’ve probably all heard is sabbaticals, and I want more of our faculty to be able to take them. It takes resources to change the world, and one of the scarcest resources is time. For example, Erika Bsumek, whom I mentioned earlier, developed ClioVis with a full teaching load on her plate. She did it, but her road was rockier than it needed to be. We can do better.
Ultimately, our leadership team’s goal is for our university to have the greatest impact of any public research university in the world. And we’ll do that by doubling down on what makes us unique — focusing on our people, taking advantage of our place, and honing our pursuits.
I want to stress, there’s a role in this for all of you. I want your ideas. I also want your critiques. We need both if we are going to have the impact — and ultimately, the university — that we desire.
Right now, we’re in a special place, at a special moment in time. The stars are lining up for the Lone Star State. With these opportunities comes responsibility. My biggest fear in this job is waking up in a few years and seeing that we didn’t do enough — we didn’t set our sights high enough, didn’t take enough risks, and we didn’t take advantage of this moment. We have an incredible chance to bring together amazing, diverse talent at scale, to utilize Austin and Texas even as we serve them better, and to innovate in our classrooms and performance spaces, our archives, libraries and labs. If we can do that, I’m confident we’ll plot a course to become the world’s most impactful public university.
Thank you for entrusting me with this chance to serve as UT Austin’s president. Thank you for joining me today and for all you do for our incredible university. We’re in this together, and together, we can change the world. Hook ’em!