To enact change, new president must continue Powers’ legacy

Paul Woodruff

We need a president who can lead us through the enormous changes that lie ahead. Our world is changing more rapidly than we are, as is true of all great research universities.  In the near future we — like the others — will have to change what we teach, the way we teach and the value we give to teaching.  We will also have to change our approach to research, asking hard questions about what sorts of research are valuable and how the University should support research.  A great university like ours is a treasure house of knowledge and at the same time an engine for developing new knowledge, but that is little use to the public unless we do a better job connecting our young students to the knowledge we preserve or create.  

In recent years we have outdistanced our peer institutions in improving undergraduate education, but a palpable gap remains between our research and our teaching; our new president should lead us to bridge that gap as best we can.  At the same time, studies about learning and new technology are challenging us to make radical changes in the way we teach.  We cannot hide from these.

Change comes hard to a university; academics form one of the most conservative professions on earth, and they fight hard to prevent major change.  Courage is essential in the new president — the courage to take on the most serious problems, to face down resistance and to risk failure. Courage consists in having good values and sticking by them in the face of fear.  The new president must be committed to certain values, above all to the importance of teaching undergraduates, which is too often subordinated to research of questionable value.  The new president must also care deeply about the value of knowledge, which a great university like ours creates, discovers and preserves.

The main factor preventing change in American universities is the obsession with ranking.  Most rankings are based on limited kinds of research that the academic profession values at a given time.  Department chairs and deans are afraid to do anything that endangers their unit’s rank, while they are always on the watch for funds that could lift them a peg or two in the estimation of colleagues from other schools.  Rankings enshrine conservative values, and they make us suspend our own judgment in favor of the judgment of others.  The new president must have the courage to look past rankings to ask what our students really need to learn, as well as what kinds of research the university really should support.  

After courage, the most critical quality will be the ability to communicate.  The new president must have a talent for listening, speaking and writing.  Listening is vital; the advocates of many points of view need to be heard, and they need to feel that they have been heard.  Then, to lead us through change, the new president must be able to tell a story about the change that helps us believe in it and want to be part of it.  Change of the magnitude we need cannot be forced from the top down; our community must make change its own, and this will not happen unless the president tells a compelling story.

In my 41 years at UT I have served under many presidents and known five of them fairly well.  We have been fortunate in our presidents.  The most recent one, William Powers Jr., has been the most effective agent of change I have seen leading us from the Tower.  He understood the need to re-emphasize undergraduate education and led in developing an ambitious plan for reform well before political calls for change came from outside the University.  Reforms proposed from outside often have laudable goals, but they will fail in a great research university unless they are redesigned by people like Powers who understand how to change from inside, without damaging the brilliant learning community that we have built over the years.  No president has done so much as Bill Powers to improve the undergraduate experience.  His qualities are a good guide to the qualities we need in our next president.  But all universities face even greater changes now, and changes at an accelerating pace.  The new president will have a hard act to follow, but will have to lead us further and faster.

When a great president steps down, the University community should be proud, not over what the president accomplished, but over what we did under the president’s leadership.  Our University has a great history, but for us now it comes to this:  We need a president who will make us proud to be part of the future of the University of Texas at Austin.

Woodruff is a Darrell K. Royal Regents Professor in Ethics and American Society and was the founding dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies.