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 School of Social 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.