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We built this city. Now, can UT help make Austin the best version of itself?

A conversation with UT’s new deputy to the president for societal challenges and opportunities, Allan Cole

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To a significant degree, UT helped build modern Austin, especially since the 1980s, when the university’s intellectual ecosystem touched off an explosion of technology companies starting up in and moving to Central Texas. This was the beginning of a transformation that took Austin from a government-and-college town to the 11th largest city in the United States — larger than San Francisco, Seattle or Philadelphia. With that growth has come the challenges faced by every great American city, including, in particular, the overlapping problems of homelessness, high housing costs and mental illness.

Trying to ameliorate those problems is Allan Cole’s new job. Cole, who still serves as a professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, was recently appointed deputy to the president for societal challenges and opportunities. If that’s too much of a mouthful, think of him as President Jay Hartzell’s “Austin czar.”

 

Allan Cole
Cole, Allan 2021

It’s been a long and winding road for Cole. Raised in Dallas and South Carolina, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Davidson College in North Carolina. Subsequently, he took degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia University, where he studied social work. “My energy was really in the academic world and around issues of mental health in particular,” he says. Cole moved to Austin in 2003 to teach at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where he eventually became dean. He also became the point person for a dual-degree program between the seminary and UT’s School of Social Work. When the school’s then-associate dean announced his retirement in 2014, Dean Luis Zayas invited Cole to consider joining UT’s social work faculty. Cole remembers. “I was thrilled. I wanted to be at a research-1 university, and also knew coming to UT and the School of Social Work was really a great opportunity: I could continue doing what I’d always done in my teaching and research as well as in leadership, but also lean in some new directions, which was exciting and attractive.”

Five years ago, at 48, with degrees in philosophy, divinity and social work, Cole was a powerhouse of multiperspectival knowledge. Then he became an expert in something else, something he was not seeking. One day, he noticed his index finger was trembling for no apparent reason. After it continued for some time, he went to his doctor and was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease.

Now among his many other areas of expertise, Cole is an expert on chronic illness. He is the author or editor of 11 books, his latest being “Counseling Persons with Parkinson’s Disease” (Oxford, 2021). “Discerning the Way: Lessons from Parkinson’s Disease” will be published later this year. And his first book of poetry, “In the Care of Plenty: Poems,” will be published in 2022.

“So far I’ve been very fortunate,” he says: mild symptoms that are controlled with medicine, mostly stiffness and cramping in his feet. “My left arm doesn’t want to straighten anymore,” he says. “We know now that Parkinson’s is really a spectrum disease. If you know one person with Parkinson’s, you know one person, because it’s a snowflake disease — it affects people differently,” he adds. “But it’s become part of my raison d’être to try to raise awareness through education and to raise money for the cause.” He created a blog (PDWise.com) and is a regular guest blogger for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. He wrote “Counseling Persons with Parkinson’s Disease” for a professional audience but also included aspects of his own story, so the chapters alternate between memoir and a professional guidebook.

What’s more, he says, “Parkinson’s opened a new world with lots of wonderful, extraordinary people that I would have never met. I also teach differently, and I lead differently, too, by virtue of this illness. I’m not disabled, but I may be at some point, and I feel like those with Parkinson’s and those who live with chronic illness or disabilities are my people. I’m trying to use my platform to do something good with Parkinson’s.”

We spoke Aug. 25 in Allan Cole’s office in the Main Building.

It’s not every day that the university’s president appoints a poet as their deputy, so congratulations to you and to poets everywhere!

I haven’t thought about it in those terms, but I’ll remind him of that!

Why did he think it was time for a position like this to be created, and why did he pick you? Did you know each other?

We’ve known each other for a number of years. He used to be the senior associate dean for academic affairs in the McCombs School, and that’s my role in the School of Social Work, so we went to the same meetings and were in the same network. After he became president, we were talking one day, and he said, “You know I have this idea, and I want to run it past you.”

He wanted the university to leverage its resources in a more intentional way with community partners to address the pressing social issues of the day, and especially their impact on those living in the city of Austin. As the idea took shape, I got excited about the work and, fortunately, President Hartzell invited me to lead it. It’s still evolving, and we’re creating it as we go. But there are three issues we agreed were timely and should garner more attention. Those were affordable housing, homelessness and mental health.

The goal is to identify and coordinate resources at UT, particularly faculty resources, in an effort to work more intentionally with community stakeholders and partners. Some of those partnerships exist now; some are being identified. And it’s not just about improving life at UT but about how we can improve life for people in the larger community, throughout the city. It is really going to take a collective effort to mitigate these challenges.

How do you visualize these three overlapping starting points — mental health, homelessness and affordable housing?

These all intersect, as do other needs such as health care and transportation. We’re starting with affordable housing, mental health and homelessness. I’m under no illusion that we’re going to solve any of these issues, but if we can make some headway toward ameliorating them, I feel like we are being good stewards of our resources.

What does success look like for this position? These are huge issues, so what would a dent look like in any of these?

My hope is that The University of Texas at Austin will play a significant role in helping to ameliorate some of the problems that we face. If we have fewer people experiencing homelessness and we have more people getting the mental health services they need and we are thinking in new, creative, mutually beneficial ways about affordable housing — and maybe modeling some of that as a university — then I’ll think that we’ve been successful.

When you say modeling affordable housing, can you elaborate?

How do we, in partnerships with developers, community leaders, and elected officials, find models of affordability that make sense for all parties involved? How do we get developers on board by helping them find ways to build less expensive housing? How do we expand on the approaches to land use? How do we partner with others in the community who are doing this kind of work to best utilize our resources, which are largely intellectual resources. We have really smart people who know how to help move the needle on some of these challenges, so how can we parlay this knowledge into being a significant contributor to the community’s efforts toward enhancing the public good.

Where are those experts on our faculty? For affordable housing, for instance, in which schools and colleges would you look for experts?

The School of Architecture for sure — colleagues in urban planning, urban design and architecture; also, faculty in the Law School, the McCombs School of Business, the LBJ School of Public Affairs; and then my own school, the Steve Hicks Social of Work. Those are the primary schools that are doing this work on housing. But there are also faculty in other schools who have an interest in affordable housing. When we’re looking at the cost of building, for example, you’ve got folks in engineering and the sciences who could be involved.

When we consider mental health, this changes — fewer faculty in architecture and more in social work and psychology and psychiatry and related disciplines. And with homelessness, the experts shift again.

And you have an appointment at Dell Med yourself?

I have a courtesy appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. My expertise is in mental health. I know less about homelessness and even less about affordable housing. What I think I’m pretty good at is bringing people together to have meaningful conversations and trying to identify individuals and networks that should to be talking to one another. So I’m learning a lot about affordable housing. I’m learning a lot about homelessness. I’ll learn things about mental health too, no doubt, but I come in with more knowledge about that piece than I do the other two.

Many things in life are just de facto awful — COVID is awful, racism is awful. But there’s always the question of whether good things can follow from awful things.

Allan Cole

Do you feel mental health problems have always been basically in a steady state and that we’re just talking about them more now, or have we created a world in which we actually have more mental health problems?

I think it’s a combination of both. People have always wrestled with mental health concerns. As a society, we’re much more open to talking about that now, and that’s good. Some of the taboo or social stigma that historically has been a part of those experiences — of struggles with mental health — is less operative now. And I think part of this is driven by the fact that more people are affected by things like depression and anxiety, stress, relational difficulties, all the things that are mental health as we know it. With COVID, certainly the stressors of isolation, of illness or fear of illness, of educating children and educating college students remotely, of having to learn to work in different ways, or learning to work from home for those privileged to have that option — all of that exacerbated what was already a crisis in this country. Struggles with mental illness have always been there, but we talk about it more now because we have more people affected by it and, as a society, we are giving one another permission to speak about it.

As we come back to campus, what do we need, psychologically or spiritually?

For a lot of us, the pandemic raised age-old questions, those that philosophers and novelists and other kinds of thinkers, really, all human beings, have wrestled with: Who am I? What is my purpose? What are my values? How do I want to spend my time? Whom do I want to spend it with? My resources — where should those be going? We’ve seen all of these large, existential questions come to the fore.

In response to these questions, I know people who have switched jobs and careers, who have changed their geography, who have downsized because they want to get out of the rat race. I know people who have dedicated their lives to causes they care about. I know people who have gone back to school, because why put something off you want to do; life is unpredictable. I think these are responses to profound existential questions, value questions, priority questions. These questions are now being asked in light of what we’ve experienced the last year and a half. They prompt us to stop and assess and evaluate and then, in some cases, to make intentional decisions to pivot or sometimes change drastically the path we’re on.

And I think that’s a good thing. I’m a hopeful person by nature. I know many things in life are just de facto awful — COVID is awful, racism is awful. But there’s always the question of whether good things can follow from awful things. It doesn’t mean the bad things that happen are any less bad, but if they are an impetus for constructive change, then I think we do well to celebrate that opportunity. The social justice questions raised or amplified by COVID — questions of access to health care, health disparities and social determinants of health — I think those are good questions. The same can be said for this new wave of national reckoning around race touched off by the George Floyd murder. These questions raise our awareness and make us assess individually and collectively who we are and who we want to be in new, perhaps more intentional ways, and I hope we come out the other side better in our humanity.

Nature is full of useful analogies, right? The forest fire that opens the seed pods? The storm that cleanses the earth?

Right. Those are good enough for me to steal! The hurricane is never good in and of itself, but if it leads to changes in practices that are better for the environment, then that’s something good that comes from it. A lot of us are living in that space right now: How do we take difficult experiences, acknowledge their awfulness and say, “How do we move forward and learn and grow and contribute?” We do that on an individual level and on a collective level, and you’re seeing both happening right now.

There was so much inequity laid bare by COVID. We felt it right away — the unfairness of manual laborers being more exposed because there was no way they could work remotely, the rich getting richer, the poor getting sick. We saw those inequities, but do you see any actual reversals coming out of that, or is it just, “Oh well, [bummer] to be you”?

Our students give me the most hope that we’re on at least a better path, even if we haven’t quite figured it all out yet. And when I look at the level of awareness among larger groups of people, including our students — and the growing commitments to equity and justice, whether that’s racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, social justice, as we often refer to it in social work — I’m encouraged. It’s also clear to me that the conversations have shifted. We are talking more openly, honestly, courageously about the hard issues of the day and asking ourselves what role we can and should play — personally — in helping to make things better. I’m not a Pollyanna; I’m a realist. We have a lot of work to do, but the national conversation seems different than it used to seem. I think we’re holding each other accountable in new ways. We’re holding institutions accountable in new ways, elected officials accountable in new ways. It gives me the hope that we’re on the right track.

When I was a student here [late ’80s], I had a government professor who took great exception to the term “social justice.” He said there is only justice and injustice, and that adding the word social” somehow perverted the concept of justice by applying to groups something that should be applied strictly to individuals. What would you say to people who roll their eyes at the term social justice”?

For me, it revolves around the question, is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? And for me, the answer is yes, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The parts matter, of course, they are invaluable; and historically, for a variety of reasons, all the parts have not been recognized, much less, valued or given voice. I hope this is changing for the better because for me, part of the social contract and living in communities, small or large, is this shared commitment to things like justice and equity and access and fairness.

So, when there are disparities, or injustice, societies are called upon to figure out how to resolve those disparities. Now, good people will disagree on how best to do that: who should play a role and who shouldn’t? Whose resources should be tapped and whose shouldn’t? I think all of that’s fair and important, and we can have a variety of perspectives on that. So I’m not arguing for one way or even five ways toward these solutions. But all of us do better, I would argue, when we live in communities and in a society where things like justice and equity and fairness and opportunity are our deep values.

So there is such a thing as social justice.

I think there’s a justice with a small “j” and Justice with a large “J,” and for me, social justice is Justice with a large J. I think it’s inclusive. No pun intended.

Maybe it’s all caps.

Maybe so.