2021 State of the University Address
February 4, 2021
Greetings, Longhorn Nation! I’m Jay Hartzell, and since last September, I’ve had the incredible honor of serving as the 30th president of The University of Texas at Austin. Each year, the president reports to the faculty on the state of the university. For me, in my first year in the role, it’s a chance to talk about my vision for UT and what it means to be a Longhorn. In a normal year, I would give this message in person. But as you know, this past year has been anything but normal. So, we’re doing this a different way — just as we’ve been adapting and adjusting for several months now.
It was a year ago this month when the storm clouds first appeared — the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the United States. A year later, we live in a very different world. The pandemic has been hard on all of us, and our university is no exception. But I’m proud of how we have risen to the moment and shown what we’re made of. And I’m excited about where we will go from here. So today, as president of our state’s flagship university, I’m here to tell you that we are weathering the storm — and next, we catch new tailwinds.
Navigating the Pandemic
Across the world, we’ve seen a mix of responses to COVID-19. Here at UT, I’ve been proud that rather than succumbing to panic, incompetence or denial, our response has been based on data, prudence, vigilance, solidarity and operational excellence.
Last year, we invested nearly $30 million to Protect Texas Together. We created testing and tracing capabilities right here on campus — from scratch. Over 60,000 tests have been taken by over 20,000 people. Because of this, we’ve managed to intercept over 700 people who were positive but asymptomatic. We worked with them to isolate from the rest of our community.
In addition, we’ve purchased PPE and instilled social distancing principles and protocols across the campus community through a coordinated public health campaign. Obviously, we’re not done yet. But so far, we’ve been able to do our part to help contain the virus in our community while also maintaining critical research and teaching functions. And in December, we were one of the first institutions in the nation to administer vaccines to our essential health care workers. We’re now administering vaccines to medically vulnerable staff, faculty and students. And we’ve been designated as a vaccine hub by the state of Texas, which means we’re now allocated more vaccine so we can take on an expanded role vaccinating underserved communities in the Austin area.
In addition to helping to contain the virus, we’ve successfully pioneered a new hybrid learning model. In the fall semester, campus hosted over a million classes and other meetings online — that’s nearly half a billion minutes of class time. I want to thank our faculty, as well as our incredible IT and media services staff, for their tireless work over many months to make this happen. The model you pioneered, in the middle of a world turned upside down, has served our students ably. It wasn’t easy. But you’ve made it work.
Obviously a huge thanks is due to all our staff for their truly herculean efforts over the past 12 months. To our counselors, custodians, communicators, academic advisors, administrators and all other staff: You are the backbone of our teaching and research missions. I also want to thank our incredible UT Police Department and all who help our campus environment remain safe and secure. We couldn’t do it without you.
And I would be remiss not to thank our students as well. Professor Art Markman, one of our COVID planning leaders, said in November, “The decision to open this fall was a bet on the students.” It was a bet we made because we believe in them. And they proved us right. They masked up, social distanced, stayed patient — and made lemonade out of a giant pile of 2020 lemons. Thank you, students, for the solidarity and responsibility you have shown and continue to show.
Because we worked together, we were able to complete the fall semester. In similar fashion, I’m confident we can complete the spring semester, as well. This week, classes return to a mix of online and in person. And with vaccines now being deployed on campus, we can hopefully return to a near normal Forty Acres in the fall.
None of this is to say that our work combatting COVID-19 is finished, as the data from across Texas indicates. But clearly, our strengths as an institution have shone during the past year. And those strengths haven’t just enabled the continuation of campus life. The pandemic has sharpened the role of research universities in our society — and as with all our work, what starts here has the ability to change the world.
We see this in the work of Jason McLellan and his team. I’ll leave it to Jason to explain what they did.
Jason McLellan: "What we were able to do was to determine a high-resolution, three-dimensional structure of the spike protein that’s on the surface of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And using this structure, we could engineer in mutations that can boost the expression of the spike protein, keep it more stable, and make it a better vaccine antigen. And this modified spike is what’s being delivered in the Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines."
It was UT researchers, working in UT laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art technology provided in part by support from the State of Texas, that achieved these breakthroughs.
We also see UT’s impact through the work of the Modeling Consortium. Here’s what Lauren Ancel Meyers has to say about her team’s work.
Lauren Ancel Meyers: "So we do lots of things, all aimed at trying to answer three questions: What is the nature of this threat? How is this threat spreading today, and where will it be spreading tomorrow? And how do we slow the spread of the virus? One of the things we do is create dashboards, projecting deaths from COVID across the United States, projecting what’s going to happen in our hospitals in Austin and all across Texas, and providing situational awareness to help schools open more safely and the general public to gauge the risks in their community on a weekly basis. It’s based on decades of research in the area of pandemic modeling, including the work my lab has done at UT since 2003."
These models are used every day across the nation to assess risk and understand the impacts of our behavior in the fight against COVID-19.
Finally, we’ve pioneered new models of care and public health communication at the UT Health Austin, the Dell Medical School and University Health Services. So we aren’t just surviving the storm of COVID-19 — we’re helping Texas, the nation and the world navigate it as well. Together, we have put our minds to the defense of life in person, because we believe it is worth fighting for.
I’m not sure about you, but I am not surprised by these successes. This is what happens when we connect outstanding faculty, students and staff with first-class resources and robust support structures: We lead the world and we change it for the better. I believe this can be true across our entire campus — we’re starting to gauge the effects of the pandemic on social work and mental health, on businesses and supply chains. Philosophers, ethicists and political theorists will spend the ensuing decades grappling with age-old questions in new contexts: For example, how do democracies define terms like “essential” “emergency” and “temporary” during a pandemic, and who gets to decide?
Historians and archivists on campus are working right now to document our pandemic experiences. Here’s Daina Berry, chair of the History Department, speaking about her project "Beyond 2020 Living History."
Daina Berry: "This project is an online, virtual archive of how we as a community experience the pandemic. By creating individual time capsules of objects and readings and writings, our goal was to give our community a space to express how we were living in this very, very difficult moment. In the History Department, we know that we tell stories about the past, and we knew that this was an opportunity for us to help curate how we are experiencing the present."
Thanks to these efforts and others, future scholars who study our historical moment will have the primary sources they need to understand what actually happened. Meanwhile, writers, poets, artists and musicians are all working to make sense of the pandemic on a human level — to breath meaning into the places where meanings are scarce. In short, the pandemic has the potential to animate and infuse our academic energies for years to come.
And yet, Longhorn Nation has surely suffered. Tragically, three of our beloved staff members contracted COVID-19 and died last year. Their families and colleagues still grieve. In addition, many staff, faculty and students have lost loved ones. Disruptions in our shared life have taken a significant toll on our physical and mental well-being.
I’m not sure about you, but I am not surprised by these successes. This is what happens when we connect outstanding faculty, students and staff with first-class resources and robust support structures: We lead the world and we change it for the better.
As a university, we are also dealing with the financial impact of this pandemic. We remain financially sound as an institution, and we are more fortunate than others with lesser breadth and fewer resources. But we have had to make some hard decisions to prudently manage our resources, including an estimated $150 million drop in revenues. In other words, the storm we are weathering has taken a toll, and we need to mend our sails.
Mission, Vision and Values
We will also need to recalibrate those sails for new tailwinds. It isn’t just optimism that drives our imagining of a post-pandemic world — we have a responsibility to our students, faculty, staff and alumni — and our state — to start looking ahead.
On January 11, we initiated a new strategic planning process to ensure that we can deliver on our mission, purpose and values over the next decade and beyond. Its purpose is to identify and map those tailwinds, to capture the many opportunities we have ahead of us. This process will build on the work of previous initiatives such as the Commission of 125 and the Council for Texas Impact. To be clear, we’re not re-inventing the wheel, nor is this a cosmetic exercise. Our core focus will remain the same: to teach and listen, to conduct impactful research, to revolutionize health care, and to serve the people of Texas. Furthermore, we’re already one of the best public universities in America, and we compete with many of the elite privates. My point is simply this: We can reach higher, and I truly believe we’re at a special moment in time where we can raise our sights even further given all the factors we’re facing.
So how do we reach higher? I want to outline three strengths on which we will build:
1. Continuing to recruit elite faculty and outstanding students.
2. Creating an environment characterized by excellence, academic freedom and diversity, and
3. Leveraging the unique set of opportunities afforded us by our location: in Texas, at Austin.
When it comes to recruiting top talent, we have a strong platform from which to reach higher. For example, we already boast the country’s top-ranked programs in accounting, geology, Latin American history, the sociology of population and petroleum engineering. In addition, 48 of the university’s graduate programs are among the nation’s top 10 — the third most of any public university in the nation.
From archives and galleries to supercomputers and electron microscopes, UT has the research capacities to support our recruitment efforts. Here’s Jason McLellan again, explaining what attracted him to UT.
Jason McLellan: "My research requires expensive, state-of-the-art, cryo-electron microscopes. UT has a terrific infrastructure, with two of these microscopes, and my lab has ready access. I was also attracted by the wonderful science being performed here at UT and the terrific colleagues in our department.”
And here’s Daina Berry, explaining what attracted her.
Daina Berry: "I came to UT because I knew that the archives would support the research that I wanted to do and the kind of research that I wanted to train students to do. We have wonderful collections, with the Benson Center, the Briscoe Center, the Harry Ransom Center, but also the archives that are in and around the city of Austin. It’s a gold mine for a historian.”
I’m confident we have the resources to keep recruiting top faculty like Jason and Daina to campus.
Furthermore, our search for outstanding students and faculty now casts a wider net than ever. This includes looking within our state’s borders for the best and brightest students — many of whom come from places or backgrounds we didn’t always aggressively recruit. This year, after hearing directly from Black and brown students and alumni, we approved the new funds to expand student recruitment and outreach in Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley. And through campus-wide initiatives such as Texas Global and our International Board of Advisors, we’re connecting our endeavors with those of allies and advocates across the world. Our efforts are working. In fall 2020, the university had record high Black and Hispanic undergraduate student enrollment. For the fall 2021 semester, we saw a record number of freshman applications from Black and Hispanic students.
We’re already one of the best public universities in America. But we can reach higher. I truly believe we’re at a special moment in time where we can raise our sights even further given all the factors we’re facing.
These efforts represent our belief that talent emerges across all backgrounds, circumstances and regions. Ask any of the 9,000 first-generation students at UT. Ask Thanakarn, Nicolás and Natasha — all first-generation students at the Butler School of Music.
Thanakarn Limtham: "My name is Thanakarn Limtham. I am from Bangkok, Thailand. My mom is a single mom, but she’s always been so supportive. Without scholarships, I would not be able to come here. As a first-generation student these feel like wings that you can spread and fly through every opportunity. And I’ve learned a lot. My teachers are always there to help, and willing to listen to me. And, of course, UT is a very big school, so you have a lot of groups and people that you can get connected with."
Nicolás Medina Gutiérrez"I’m Nicolás Medina. I am from Valencia, Venezuela. My mom was always the one who made sure she provided all the tools I needed to succeed in music. She would always take me to my lessons, she would always buy the strings. (I used to break strings a lot when I was a kid.) The full scholarship that I got is the only reason I was able to come study here. There have been many faculty members from UT that have always been looking out for me. I’m very grateful for that."
Natasha Talukdar Elam"My name is Natasha Talukdar Elam. I was born in Manila, Philippines. Choosing music was not an easy path, and especially being a first-generation student. My parents came here for a better life for them and for their children, for us to have the opportunity to go to college. There was a lot of pressure for me to succeed, and I’m really happy to be here at UT, because I think I have the resources, and the teachers, and the support system to be able to give me the confidence that I need. The teachers want to help you — not just your growth right now, for the future as well. They are not just here to be your teachers, they are your mentors."
Thanakarn, Nicolás and Natasha all stand poised to fulfill their amazing potential. Their stories remind us that in order to unlock talent, we need to support it, nurture it, and encourage it — financially, emotionally and academically.
With this in mind, I want to again thank our Board of Regents, under the leadership of Chairman Kevin Eltife, for their support of the Texas Advance Commitment, which came into full effect last semester. Thanks to this incredible program for students from Texas families with incomes below $65,000, tuition is fully covered. For those with family incomes below $125,000, there is also some guaranteed support for tuition. It is a game-changing program that represents our university's fundamental belief in the talent that Texas has to offer. It’s our gateway to finding the thousands of students who will come to UT and unlock their incredible abilities.
There should always be a place at UT for those with exciting but unproven talents and potential.
The Texas Advance Commitment also speaks to another desire that I share with our Board: that UT should be a place where both students and faculty can become outstanding. We don’t simply recruit the best. We foster an atmosphere where we become better. There should always be a place at UT for those with exciting but unproven talents and potential. This is why curating an environment characterized by excellence, academic freedom and diversity is vital to our path forward.
Creating an environment characterized by excellence, academic freedom and diversity.
Reaching higher means putting excellence at the heart of all we do. And again, we move forward with a solid foundation in place. Across the sciences and humanities, our faculty have won Nobel prizes and Pulitzers, Emmys and Oscars. They are entrusted with hundreds of millions of dollars in private research funding.
Over 1,000 national and international patents have been awarded to the university within the last decade. So we are well positioned for the new frontiers that continue to open up all around us — let’s strive to maximize the opportunities before us.
During 2020 we saw new frontiers open in the use of technology to improve our instruction and better serve our students. For example, by moving advising sessions and office hours online, we’ve seen an increase in student participation and engagement. Students often prefer joining a professor’s virtual office hours to ask a quick question rather than bearing the costs of getting to and from the professor’s office.
It’s also much easier to ask a guest expert to Zoom into a classroom rather than to fly them to Austin. We’ve learned a lot over the last several months, and we’ll want to keep some aspects of online learning as we look to restore more and more of the in-person academic life we treasure.
Another example of how we can position ourselves for opportunity is the commercialization of ideas, technology and research. This is an important capability for both Texas and UT — a better built commercialization ecosystem will encourage more innovation, create jobs, and advance society.
We’ve had some successes in the past but as with all things, we want to be among the very best. Given our location and the breadth and depth of our research, potential is vast in this area. So we’ve started an effort to reimagine this capability on campus, seeking to create a more collaborative culture and supportive structure around commercialization. From there, we can better connect our students, alumni, university facilitators and business leaders in ways that bridge the gaps between breakthrough research and the needs of society.
There are many more opportunities. And we can best take advantage of them through excellence. And as we place an even greater emphasis on excellence, we should remember that it is intimately connected with the freedom to express and debate ideas.
In fact, these values feed on one another. It is no surprise that the march of innovation over the last few hundred years has coincided with the march of free speech and a general trend toward incorporating a more diverse range of voices, talents and perspectives in our societal discourse. More recently, it has been no surprise that democracies rather than dictatorships have led the way in the creation of coronavirus vaccines. It is the free exchange of ideas that leads to knowledge, creativity and innovation.
So our commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech must be steadfast. Students and faculty, whether in the sciences or the humanities, should experiment with ideas within an inclusive atmosphere. A university is a unique place to debate, discuss, speculate and research. It must remain so. It also must be a place to listen and to learn.
Our conversations should be passionate, push each other, challenge assumptions and norms, and raise questions that are tough to answer. But it must also be respectful and thoughtful. Our positions should be backed with evidence and data. When we encounter controversial speech, we should meet it with more speech — with clearer reasoning, evidence and data — rather than shutting down the discussion.
There are many opportunities. And we can best take advantage of them through excellence, a value that is intimately connected with the freedom to express and debate ideas
So far, the debate around how to understand the history of “The Eyes of Texas” has been this sort of discussion. I want to thank all of our students who have participated — especially our student athletes who are learning how to leverage their positions and talents to raise awareness of causes that matter. And I want to thank Professor Rich Reddick and the committee who have studied, debated and grappled with our alma mater’s history. Their findings, released next month, will help us to move forward around a common set of facts.
I want UT to be a national model for such conversation. We should be a safe space but also a brave space. Ultimately, we will continue to celebrate our university’s story — both our traditions and our trajectory. We don’t shy away from the injustice found in our history, nor are we bashful about the progress we’ve made since 1883.
We remain on a journey and our work is far from done. As we move forward together, I believe our past is an asset more than a liability. Our history has shown itself to be redeemable many times. I believe it will continue to be so.
I was reminded of this in November, when we unveiled a new statue commemorating Julius Whittier, the first Black athlete to receive a scholarship from UT. He played for the Longhorns between 1970 and 1972, helping the team win a National Championship.
Off the field, the subject that caught his imagination was philosophy. As he put it once, “the profs let me raise my hand and spout my ideas.” They helped him develop writing and debate skills that later served him so well as a senior prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.
We don’t shy away from the injustice found in our history, nor are we bashful about the progress we’ve made since 1883.
There were those from within and outside the university who didn’t believe that Julius or other Black students belonged here. Despite this, Julius loved UT. He wanted to come here. He wanted to be an agent of change. And he was. The Forty Acres is different today because of him and those who followed.
Julius was fantastically successful. He played his heart out, studied his heart out and went on to make his mark on the world as a public servant. He is a model for every UT student on campus today and every one of our alumni.
Playing to our unique opportunities for partnerships because of our location
Finally, reaching higher means leveraging our unique opportunities for partnerships here in Texas. I grew up in Oklahoma, studied as an undergraduate in San Antonio, and then worked in the Houston area before coming to Austin in the early 1990s as a grad student.
One of the things I love about Texas is its dualities: oil and gas, wind and solar; cattle ranches and tech startups; F-150s and Priuses; cowboy boots and Birkenstocks. Nowhere encapsulates this more than Austin.
Our city is a hub for technology, government and education. And we’re booming — from my office window in the Tower, I count 27 cranes in view. We’re at the forefront of the 21st century’s emerging knowledge-based economy. That’s why Dell, Google, Amazon, Apple, Samsung and IBM are all in town, with Tesla and Oracle’s headquarters on the way, too. Our students are the future of these workplaces. How do we team up with these firms? How do we work with them to benefit both our teaching and our research?
From building better machine-learning algorithms to fostering analytical skills that only the humanities can teach, we can partner with all kinds of firms to help improve workforces and business practices.
Thankfully, UT is already a place where collaboration with those off campus is an established value. It’s a value understood by Dr. Karen Willcox, co-leading a collaboration with MD Anderson in Houston to use computational modelling in the fight against cancer. It’s a value exemplified by Dr. Kevin Foster, a scholar of Black studies and an educational entrepreneur, who was recently elected to the Austin Independent School District board. And it’s a value reflected in our new partnership with the Army Futures Command in creating a robotics lab.
These connections are new and exciting. But there is a deeper connection, one as old as the university itself — it’s with the people of Texas and their democratic representatives. It was in 1838 that the fledgling town of Austin — then called Waterloo — was selected as the future site for both the state government and The University of Texas. Land was set aside for both institutions above the north bank of the Colorado — one section was Capitol Square, another further north was College Hill.
Today, UT is one of just a few top-tier public universities located in a thriving capital city. Our proximity to the Texas Capitol is a tremendous advantage. So let’s redouble our efforts to be a wellspring of ideas for public policy, a place where future leaders of the public sector are nurtured, challenged and inspired.
But more than this, the dome and the Tower are both working for a more democratically vibrant Texas. The university’s official motto is disciplina praesidium civitatis, which can be translated from Latin as “ the cultivated mind is the guardian of democracy.
Fostering world-changing research, training students to drive knowledge and grow the economy, encouraging robust debates about hard topics — this is how we cultivate minds and guard democracy. It is a vital role, especially in an age where democracy appears to be in retreat around the world. Disciplina praesidium civitatis: If higher education has a higher calling than this, I don’t know what it is.
In closing, I want to thank you — for all you do at UT. Throughout this strange and mystifying year, I have often heard people speak about a return to “normal.” And in 2021, many things surely will. But we also know the whole world is in a period of transition and discovery.
Austin and Texas are at the heart of a changing world — and so are we. I want UT to be on the front lines of the future, just like we were the last time America navigated a deadly pandemic.
Between 1918 and 1920, the so-called Spanish influenza afflicted a world still in recovery from the ravages of global conflict. Fifty million people died worldwide, and it took a greater toll on the U.S. in sheer number of deaths than the Civil War. The pandemic hit hard in Texas, and it hit hard in Austin. The whole city was shut down. Students, faculty and staff died. Campus closed in October 1918. But that isn’t the end of the story.
Campus reopened in January 1919. Public health measures were put in place, such as temperature checks and social distancing. Students were asked to make temporary sacrifices in order to help control the numbers.
My fellow Longhorns, this is our moment. As was the case a hundred years ago, we remain the state’s flagship university, and we are weathering the storm. Next, we catch new tailwinds and sail into our own roaring ’20s.
In fact, today’s students would recognize many aspects of their own experiences in those of Longhorns a hundred years ago. But my point here is found in what followed. The 1920s was a period of rapid social change, innovation, economic growth and cultural flourishing — both nationally and here on campus.
Like today, history itself seemed to speed up. But it didn’t last forever. And the moment we currently inhabit won’t either. So it’s important we take the opportunity history is granting us.
My fellow Longhorns, this is our moment. As was the case a hundred years ago, we remain the state’s flagship university, and we are weathering the storm. Next, we catch new tailwinds and sail into our own roaring ’20s.
Sonata in E Flat Major, HOB. XVI/49, L. 59, I. Allegro (1789/90)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Thanakarn Limtham, piano (DMA Collaborative Piano, expected graduation May 2021, Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin)
El Diablo Suelto (1888) Venezuelan folk song, arranged for violin solo.
Nicolás Medina Gutiérrez, violin (BM Music Performance, expected graduation May 2021, Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin)
The State of the University Address was recorded, edited and mastered by the audio production team at LAITS (Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services), The University of Texas at Austin.