State of the University: Hartzell talks COVID-19 at UT-Austin


Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar

UT President Jay Hartzell spoke about the University’s response to COVID-19, the role of academia in a democracy and the “The Eyes of Texas” at his State of the University address Thursday. 

During the address, Hartzell said a third UT-Austin staff member died of COVID-19. He did not say when the death occurred or the name of the staff member. 

“Their families and colleagues still grieve,” Hartzell said. “In addition, many staff, faculty and students have lost loved ones. Disruptions in our shared life have taken a significant toll on our physical and mental well-being.” 

The annual speech by UT’s president, which has been delivered in person in previous years, was streamed via audio broadcast. Hartzell said the pandemic has shown the importance of public universities such as UT’s role in developing a COVID-19 vaccine, the Modeling Consortium and Dell Medical School.   

Hartzell said he hopes UT will be back to somewhat normal next year now that the COVID-19 vaccine has begun dispersion. 

“None of this is to say that our work combatting COVID-19 is finished, as the data from across Texas indicates,” Hartzell said. “The pandemic has sharpened the role of research universities in our society, and as with all our work, what starts here has the ability to change the world.”

Hartzell said UT’s location in Austin means its students are the future of the tech giants moving to the city. He said by improving different aspects of UT’s technology education, the University will be able to strengthen its partnerships. Hartzell also recognized the work of the history department in documenting the pandemic with “Beyond 2020 Living History,” a project that aims to share stories from the past year.

Hartzell said UT has invested $30 million to address COVID-19 and has so far administered 60,000 COVID-19 tests to over 20,000 people. He said the University is estimated to lose $150 million in revenue since the pandemic started. 

“We remain financially sound as an institution, and we are more fortunate than others with lesser breadth and fewer resources,” Hartzell said. “The storm we are weathering has taken a toll, and we need to mend our sails.”

Hartzell doubled down on his efforts surrounding free speech and the role academic freedom plays in promoting it. He said controversial ideas should be met with more discussion and that the controversy around “The Eyes of Texas” falls into that category. 

In a previous interview with the Daily Texan in December, Hartzell said the song has a “connection” to racist elements, but he had not “nailed down” all of the facts. 

“Our conversations should be passionate, push each other, challenge assumptions and norms and raise questions that are tough to answer,” Hartzell said. “But it must also be respectful and thoughtful. Our positions should be backed with evidence and data.”

He also spoke about the new mission for the University that started on Jan. 11 but said it will not be a radically new approach. Hartzell said to achieve new goals, the University will continue to recruit top faculty and students, create an inclusive environment and take advantage of the opportunities of being located in Austin. 

“We can reach higher, and I truly believe we’re at a special moment in time where we can raise our sights even further given all the factors we’re facing,” Hartzell  said.