In the summer of 2023, UT’s nascent Center for Societal Impact was named for the Moritz family in recognition of a $5 million gift. The center had been developing since June 2022, when Cole was named dean of UT’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Previously, he had served as deputy to the president for societal challenges and opportunities. The similarity between his old title and the new center’s name was not a coincidence. “When I had the chance to move back to Social Work as dean, I made a case for bringing the work that had started in my other role with me. The President’s Office was a great place to start efforts to leverage University resources to solve critical social problems, but the work ultimately has to be within a college or school or unit if it’s going to get into the DNA of the University. It’s got to be near faculty, near students.”
Since “societal impact” could describe everything a university does, the question of what a center with a name like that takes on is important. “Does it meet the test of a critical social problem, a widespread challenge to our human thriving?” Cole asks. His previous assignment in the Office of the President was to work on the overlapping areas of homelessness, mental health and affordable housing, specifically in Austin, and while those remain priorities for the Moritz Center, the list of “strategic domains” has grown. The new center’s focus areas include aging, disability, children and families, health and technology, housing and ethics.
“These various populations have needs that are not being met,” Cole says. “The idea is to cover as much of the landscape as possible while helping to meet these needs, and there are a lot of intersections: Disability and housing intersect; disability and aging intersect; aging and housing intersect; children and families intersect with health and technology. In some ways, these domains of engagement are artificial constructs, but we have to start somewhere with respect to where to put the focus. There could have been 10 more strategic domains, but these are the ones we settled on first.”
Cole recognizes that ethics is a bit of an outlier. “It’s not a population — it’s a value. The profession of social work has a code of ethics, as most every profession has, but it’s a very central set of principles and values that we adhere to in our education as well as our practice.” Cole’s background is in philosophy and ethics. “The signal that I want to send with this is, first, that the Moritz Center is interested in championing an ethical approach to engaging with these populations; and second, ethics remains the core of both deciding on the problems we try to help solve and how we seek to solve them. We are simply bringing something that’s implicit in our work — purposeful inclusion of ethical frameworks — to a more explicit, featured place in the work we do.”
Though the center is in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, with an advisory board of UT senior-level leaders (deans and vice presidents), it is currently adding faculty affiliates from numerous colleges, schools and units. It’s also forming a board of ambassadors made up of stakeholders from outside the University who are engaged in work that has an impact on social problems and who will serve as what Cole calls additional “wisdom bearers” and advisers. Establishing these groups of stakeholders reflects Cole’s preference for collaborative and broad-based leadership as well as interdisciplinary research.
What’s distinctive about the Moritz Center for Societal Impact, says the dean, is its model — faculty, students and community partners creating opportunities to research and solve critical social problems, with an emphasis on immediate impact.
Building the Team
To lead the center, Cole called on Jeanette Davidson, a seasoned educator in social work whom he met when he was a graduate student at Columbia University. “She was my teacher,” Cole says. “I was impressed with her then, and we kept in touch over many years. I felt like she would bring a great deal of wisdom and insight to help lead the Moritz Center as its inaugural director.” Born and raised in Scotland, Davidson came to UT in June from the University of Oklahoma, where she had been for 26 years.
Jeanette Davidson, Director of the Moritz Center for Societal Impact
Her first to-do was to get to know both the faculty of the University and the state of social work in Austin, particularly those organizations that deal with the homeless population such as ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) and Community First, an outgrowth of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Among her first impressions of Austin, she says, “I’ve been really struck by how many homeless people are under the bridges. There are so many social workers doing good work, but they’re overloaded.”
“If we can make any impact at all on housing affordability, that would be terrific,” Moritz says. “It’s such a major area to tackle. God bless them for putting that on the agenda. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find affordable housing in any metro area but especially in Austin.”
Cole says he wants the center to be a part of UT’s effort to increase housing opportunities for faculty, staff and students, but he’s also interested in finding solutions beyond campus for affordability in Central Texas and hopes to hire a faculty member who has expertise in housing to anchor that work.
Heart Galleries of Texas
The Moritz Center’s first major project came when the Texas Legislature awarded the center $12 million to help improve the rate at which foster children get permanently adopted. The strategy is remarkably simple: take something that is working locally and scale it up statewide.
That thing that is working is Heart Galleries of Texas, a concept pioneered by the nonprofit organization Partnerships for Children, which leads the Heart Gallery of Central Texas. Heart Galleries uses professional portraits to connect children whose parents’ parental rights have been terminated with adults, friends and communities who support them and potential adoptive families. These connections are especially critical for teens, sibling groups and children with higher medical needs.
“I was a little skeptical at first,” Cole recalls. “I thought, really? Just from a picture? But it’s a sizable percentage more effective.” Since 2014, more than 400 children featured in the Heart Gallery of Central Texas have been adopted, making the Central Texas adoption rate an average of 22% higher than that of the rest of Texas year-over-year for the past decade. “The photos really bring out these kids’ personalities,” Cole says. “If they’re athletic, the portrait will have an athletic theme. Same for artists. The outcomes are compelling.”
The Moritz Center brought in the longtime director of Partnerships for Children, Kori Gough, who now serves on the center’s staff as the Heart Galleries of Texas director. The center will facilitate collaborative efforts to develop strong and thriving local Heart Galleries within the 11 regions across Texas to increase the number of children and youths in positive and permanent placements, provide support to these families to prevent disruptions, promote family well-being, and provide statewide support of local Heart Galleries to foster innovation, provide peer support and inform best practices for system and practice improvements.
“We talk about changing lives and having an impact, and this is a program where that’s just really clear,” says Davidson. “There’s nothing more important for children than to have a permanent home. This work is changing lives, and it’s saving lives, because if children are not brought up in warm, loving homes, it’s just a devastating situation.” If foster children age out of the system and don’t have a permanent family that can support them in college or in their early employment, that can be a huge factor in homelessness. “If older teens can be adopted and have a place to call home, that’s nothing short of miraculous.”
The Heart Galleries of Texas is, of course, only the first of many initiatives. The Moritz Center just posted a request for proposals for what it is calling
Projects for Societal Impact. Anyone at UT Austin can propose a project in any of the domains listed. These projects will take place during summers and bring together faculty members, students and community partners. They will allow students to earn academic credit and have scholarship stipend money to live on, and faculty members will get money to support their research. Proposals are due on the first day of the spring semester, and the first awards, up to $25,000, will be for Summer 2024 projects.
‘Why Do It If Not for That?’
Cole describes Moritz as “a guy who wants to see impact, and he wants it now. He’s interested in things that really move the needle. That personal quality in John David is just one of the many I appreciate and admire. He and his wife, Leslie, set a standard for philanthropic support informed by generosity, compassion and action that helps transform lives.”
“Why do it if not for that?” Moritz says. “That is my philosophy. I want to make a difference as soon as I can make a difference. I, by myself, cannot make that much of a difference, but if I connect with the Dean Coles of the world, that’s going to help me achieve that difference.”
He says the same principles are true in business. “If I don’t surround myself with good people, I won’t be successful in business. If I want to be successful in my giving, I better pick the right people, because I can’t go and do what Allan’s doing, so I’m counting on him and his connections. It takes the Allans of the world to help the John Davids of the world make a difference. I’m pretty proud of it, and I’m confident and optimistic that with all the resources at the school, with the faculty working with the community, I’ve got a good chance of seeing that difference I’m looking for.”