Embracing change and continuity

The stage had been set long before the Longhorn Network’s Lowell Galindo delivered a lead-in tinged with an intensity best suited for a live broadcast of a battlefield rather than a university president’s speech in a partly filled auditorium.

No, this was the moment that he had waited for, and Wednesday afternoon, President William Powers Jr. delivered.

Powers left no leaf unturned as he took on the horcruxes of Texas higher education through the last year in a single speech. After he was finished, he stepped in front of the podium and returned an applause of his own to the crowd’s standing ovation. He made a gesture of two fists forward. It wasn’t a pre-scandal Tiger Woods fist pump, but it might as well have been.

Powers addressed all the major issues that have been hurled at UT and higher education, from faculty productivity to undergraduate teaching to academic research. He took on reports, op-eds, interviews and sentiments that have been tossed around in front of the public’s eye.

More than anything else, this was a public defense of faculty. Of all the highly publicized debates in the realm of higher education, the stigma of the lazy professor has been the least defended up to this point. A university’s unique business model combined with relatively high faculty salaries, public uncertainty about their roles and a perceived lack of community engagement makes professors vulnerable to criticism.

The speech culminated a display of savvy politics from Powers over the last few months. While he dabbled in a few op-ed pieces and took part in interviews, Powers avoided taking too controversial of stands publicly. After coming out against the guns on campus legislation during the 82nd Legislature last spring, Powers was already politically vulnerable.

Additionally, pursuing a knife-fight through the press would have made higher education institutions seem even more intractable to change.

Instead, riding a tide of patience and behind-the-scenes diligence, Powers waited for the opportune moment. The controversy spurned into blocks of UT support, such as the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. The Texas Exes publicly supported Powers, while the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency sent a message to Boards of Regents that their actions were facing legislative scrutiny.

The speech also comes shortly after UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s Framework for Academic Excellence, which drew a unanimous vote of approval from the Board of Regents. And with the higher education controversy’s enabler-in-chief, Rick Perry, chasing the bright lights of Washington D.C., distractions are plenty for some of his cash-flushed friends who were embroiled in this debate in the first place.

The biggest reminder from Powers’ speech is that a university’s role goes well beyond job training. The greatest skill a university can teach its students is critical thinking.

The United States’ economic past, present and future rests not on any specific job sector but rather on a creation and ownership of ideas. A university that can empower students to channel intellectual curiosity to create these ideas is the university of the future.

The Longhorn Network may not have been able to deliver Powers’ speech to as many households as it would have liked, but it’s clear that his message was catered to a much larger audience.