William Powers Jr. is set to serve his last semester as University president this spring. Some answers in this Q&A have been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Daily Texan: What’s one item you hope to accomplish in your last semester as president?
William Powers Jr.: Next semester, we’ll have the legislative session, which starts in January, so that will take a lot of my time. That’s important for the University. The economy is coming back. There’s a little more wherewithal in the state budget. I don’t anticipate some huge increases in higher education funding, but that will be an
DT: If you get increased funding from the legislature, what are some things that you hope that money will go toward at UT?
Powers: Every year, we take about a $40 million hit from inflation and about a $40 million hit from depreciation — that is, buildings get old and have to constantly be renovated with the air conditioning and heating and infrastructure. We have some deferred maintenance that we’ve got to get done. We have not had raises for our staff or faculty — or very minimal raises. We need more sections of some classes. It’s been tough managing with flat and actual decreased — even in nominal dollars — decreased budgets.
DT: In your State of the University address, you talked a lot about the importance of students receiving a diverse education, including becoming versed in a variety of subject areas. What are some ways the University can better focus on diversity in education?
Powers: I am so proud of what this campus has done over the last 10 years — really focusing on undergraduate experiences. The Freshman Research Initiative actually puts freshmen in real labs. They’re not just seeing the results of somebody else’s research — they’re actually doing the problem solving. I think we can expand that into the humanities, into the social sciences. That’s what I mean by a diverse set of experiences — some in the classroom, some in internships, some integrated flipped classrooms and online.
DT: When you first became president, one of your main goals was to make the University a more diverse campus. In what ways can UT work to improve higher education access to low-income students and students from underrepresented minority backgrounds, that it hasn’t already achieved?
Powers: We have made a lot of progress in diversifying our student body. I’m very proud of that. We’ve made a lot of progress in diversifying the faculty and staff. I think that’s very important. Are we there yet? No. It takes energy all the time to continue to improve that. I think the way we recruit students is important. With the leadership of David Laude, we’ve changed the way we get scholarship money and offers out. It has really paid off. Our first-generation, minority acceptance rate is way up this year because we have gotten a lot of those things out earlier. We still have to work to get the people to the campus, but just by changing the way we get offers out can have a really high pay-off in the fall.
DT: If you could rewind the past few years, specifically looking at your relationship with the UT System and Board of Regents, is there anything you would have done differently?
Powers: There are always things in detail that we might have done differently. By large, I believe deeply in UT and in public universities like UT — world-class teaching and research universities. I think it is very important for the future of our state and the future of the country. We’re losing our competitive edge around the world — the Chinese and India, Singapore, Korea — other places are investing more in universities like this. It drives the economy. An example I often use is the cellphone. It is a great device — the smart phone. The basic science happened at universities. We need to be doing the kind of research that will set the stage for technology development 10 or 20 years from now. If we lose our competitive edge on that, it will be terrible for the state and terrible for the country. Learning at the undergraduate level, not just the graduate level, in that kind of environment is necessary for leaders and innovative thinkers. But I’m proud of what I stood for. It’s been hard at times. We’ve been distracted, but I’d do it again.
DT: Do you think there is a difference in vision with the regents of where UT is going?
Powers: I think there’s a debate around the country about what the overall higher education ecosystem [should] be. Should it include community colleges, or technical colleges and regional universities? But I think that if we don’t support our major teaching and research universities, it will be very bad for the state and the country going ahead. I just think that’s something being debated around the state. I think we need to support places
DT: After you step down in June, what are some things you’re looking forward to doing?
Powers: I’ll stay at the University when I step down in June. I’ve done this for nine years. I’ll be about three months short of being the longest serving president at UT. That’s not a particularly important goal in and of itself, but I’ve done this for a long time. I’ve really enjoyed this, but it is a hard job. Getting to wake up on a Sunday morning and thinking I don’t have to worry about stuff will be kind of a luxury for me. I love teaching. I intend to teach my freshman signature course in the future and a couple of law courses. I’m really an academic at heart, so there are some books that I want to write. I haven’t really figured out in detail what I’ll be doing, but I’ll miss this job, but I look forward to, frankly, having a little more control over my schedule.
DT: What are some pieces of advice you will give the next president when he or she is chosen?
Powers: My predecessor, Larry Faulkner, was asked that same question: “What trait does the new president need?” And with some seriousness, it’s stamina. You don’t get everything done in one day. It takes a lot of energy. Loving UT, I think, is critical. And loving the kind of place UT is — a major world-class teaching and research university. We have a lot of stakeholders — the faculty, staff, our alumni, the legislature. Those groups aren’t always in alignment, so the ability to listen but then make decisions and show leadership going forward. My job is to coordinate what a lot of stakeholders think the trajectory of the University should be, not just to sit back and drift.
DT: What is your favorite color?
Powers: My favorite color is burnt orange. It’s an unusual color without being a bizarre color. If you turn on a football game on TV, and you don’t know who’s playing, you kind of have to look at the scoreboard to know. If the players are all wearing burnt orange, everybody knows. Burnt orange is by far my favorite color. Second would be white.