Q&A: UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell on COVID-19, his salary, grading changes, ‘The Eyes of Texas’

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Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for clarity. The full interview can be viewed here

As the end of the fall semester approaches, The Daily Texan sat down with UT President Jay Hartzell to ask about some of the biggest news across the Forty Acres this semester: UT’s COVID-19 response, his $1.25 million salary, recent pass/fail and Q-drop expansions and UT’s alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas.”

Hartzell previously served as interim president until the UT System Board of Regents appointed him as president at the end of September. 

COVID-19 Response

The Daily Texan: With regards to the pandemic, we've seen a little over 1,400 cases, and we unfortunately did have one staff member pass away (from COVID-19 this semester). The University has invested a lot of time, money and resources into this reopening project. And overall, would you say that this effort has been a big success, a minor success — How would you characterize it, to what level, and why?

Jay Hartzell: If you go back including the summer, I think we’ve had unfortunately two staff deaths from the disease, and it's hard to view anything in light of that as successful. … But I do think, absent some of the tragic outcomes we talked about aside, I think things have gone better in many ways than I might have expected. We've had no evidence of transmission of the disease in classrooms. Very little evidence of transmission, if any, from our campus community to the rest of Austin. 

Salary

DT: Last month the Board of Regents approved a $1.25 million salary for you. … Have you been aware of any public backlash to your salary, and if so, how do you respond to those concerns?

JH: I've probably tried to stop looking at my Twitter feed quite as much since it came out, because I know it has been the source of some people commenting on it. And I get it, it is a big sticker number. I’ve reminded at least a couple of people I’ve talked to about it that it was set by the board and with the input of the chancellor. 

DT: In 2016, UT President Greg Fenves made just under a million dollars and he wrote, according to an Austin American-Statesman information request, that a salary of over a million dollars “might not play well politically,” and a public university president shouldn't be paid in that region. What do you think?

JH: I can't get in Greg’s head. I never asked him for his thought process around what he was thinking when he wrote that. I’m not an expert in all the data and it wasn't my job to set the pay, but … if you look at where presidential salaries at top research universities have gone, they've risen with a lot of other salaries in the economy.

DT: Was there any negotiation … about your salary?

JH: I took what they offered. I thought they made me a fair offer given what I knew about where peer schools were.

Pass/Fail and Q-drop Expansion

DT: The Provost announced last Wednesday right before Thanksgiving that students would be given three pass/fails to be used across the two semesters alongside an expanded Q-drop policy. We are only two weeks away from the end of semester. What are the reasons why this wasn't considered earlier?

JH: It wasn’t that a resolution didn’t make it to my desk that I discarded. It just wasn’t (brought to my level) earlier. … My guess is part of what went through the thought process to decide to make a change later this semester was an understanding and realization of how many people had still suffered some really tough circumstances, and they may have known this class is going to be online or hybrid or whatever. 

DT: Do you personally feel like such grading changes are necessary, and was there any change in your mindset over the course of the semester on this topic?

JH: My mindset probably did move more in that same direction that I just talked through, which was the idea that, you know, you can't help but be moved and touched by the tough stories that people are going through, and the pandemic hasn't affected everybody the same. 

DT: Student governance proposed one policy, Faculty Council proposed and approved a modified version — both of which differed from what ended up being implemented. Why the changes from the Faculty Council resolution? 

JH: We heard from a lot of department chairs. We heard from deans, associate deans, assistant deans and the like. … I think we came up with something that solves problems for the academic year all at once, rather than doing it piecemeal.

DT: Would you say, overall, this sentiment (from academic leadership) moved the pass/fail number from unlimited down to three over the two semesters?

JH: There's a cap on the number of courses, but that cap is now across the entire year, and it's with the benefit of looking back in June or July at the entire year’s worth of grades. … We're giving you more information to make, the more, I think ideally rational decision with better information.

“The Eyes of Texas”

DT: From your perspective as president and in conversations that you've had, what is your understanding of why students started asking for the (“The Eyes of Texas”) to stop being played?

JH: The things that I've heard center largely around the things either connected to or related to the origins of the song. Having to do with it being the song being performed at minstrel shows and as minstrel shows having some components in blackface — the connections to the South, the connections to Robert E. Lee. I've heard concerns over the connection that “I've Been Working on the Railroad” is that tune.

DT: Would you say the song is racist, yes or no?

JH: I think the song has connections to these difficult things that have racist elements. … People will say things like, “It's racially adjacent” or various ways to frame it. … I don't say that today I nailed down every fact about the history of the song, and I'm looking forward to having all the facts on the table in January (from The Eyes of Texas History Committee).

DT: But based on what you already know about the song, would you say it's racist?

JH: As I said, I would tell you that I think it's connected to things that either are racist or have racist undertones and overtones, if you will. 

DT: What are you hoping to see from the committee that would be able to alleviate or address the harm that might have already been caused (by) the song?

JH: I don't know if it's my place to speak to what could reconcile some harm somebody’s felt from the song. … I think it's good for us to get things out in the open … so we can think about how we might be able to come together again. This is why your previous question about is it racist or not is difficult because the song has been so positive and so uniting for so many for many, many years. But there are these connections to things like minstrel shows, and obviously none of us feel good about it and are racist. ... The history is going to show some things that people didn't realize that I think are difficult for those that love the song, and I also think it'll show some things that are really positive for those that think the song is racist.