As I take office this month as president of The University of Texas at Austin, the institution is in excellent shape and poised for increased greatness. We have a more highly qualified and diverse student body than ever. We’ve just concluded a successful $3.1 billion capital campaign. And our faculty members are increasing our global reputation for research.
And yet as the university faces the future, there is much to be done.
The purpose of the university is ageless. The Texas Constitution of 1876 mandated “a university of the first class,” and that remains our goal, which we realize through our teaching and research. We have some of the world’s best faculty and research staff members. They generated more than $544 million in federal and corporate funding last year.
We have also kept tuition lower than most research universities across the nation — less than $10,000 per year for in-state residents — while providing high-quality education to tens of thousands of students.
But like flagship universities around the world, UT Austin is a dynamic organization that must adapt with the evolving landscape of higher education. Moreover, as a public university, we continue to face new questions about how to best deliver value to students, and in our case, to all of Texas.
To achieve that, I am dedicated to a concept I call “innovating excellence” — using 21st century approaches to building on the success of our core missions of educating leaders, expanding knowledge through research and scholarship and serving our diverse world.
Innovating excellence begins by strengthening UT Austin as a place where undergraduates routinely interact and collaborate with faculty members, graduate students and researchers who are making important discoveries.
This includes expanding experiential learning opportunities for all students, such as having freshmen work directly on research projects — as many have started doing in our College of Natural Sciences — and developing new opportunities for students to discover and grow intellectually outside the classroom.
It also includes student success initiatives to ensure that undergraduates have the support they need to fulfill their goals. This is especially true for first-generation college students and low-income students. For all students, we have programs to stay on track to graduate in four years.
And we continue to recognize the benefits that all our students receive when they are part of a truly diverse student body and seek to provide opportunities to Texans of all backgrounds.
Innovating excellence also means empowering our scholars in the sciences, arts and humanities, and the professions to seek answers to the questions that face society, many of them profound and difficult, and responding to growing global challenges in areas such as energy, water, education and transportation. We will strive to increase the research grants we receive while staying competitive in recruiting and retaining excellent and diverse students and faculty members.
A goal of any higher education institution should also be to influence and energize the greater society.
Innovating excellence culminates by doing that — transforming lives by sharing our many resources. We will employ premier online learning programs for students and learners beyond campus. We will cultivate our vast cultural collections, make our arts available to all who are interested and ensure that our athletics teams continue their tradition of winning with integrity.
Nothing will embody our spirit of innovating excellence as much as next year’s opening of the Dell Medical School, the first new medical school in nearly 50 years to be established at a member school of the prestigious American Association of Universities.
At the Dell Medical School, we are developing a new model for medical education that partners with the community, redesigning health care to better align with society’s interests in quality and value. We are creating and supporting partnerships and programs that will revolutionize the way Texans get and stay healthy, combining clinical work with an innovative learning culture that is team-based and multiprofessional, drawing on the strengths of the university.
The future holds great promise for the Forty Acres. We will embrace change to be leaders in higher education and increase the value of a flagship research university to students, Texas and the wider world.
Gregory L. Fenves is the president of The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chornicle, San Antonio Express News, Fort Worth Star Telegram, The McAllen Monitor, Corpus Christi Caller Times, and Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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