UT President Bill Powers: "We Are a House Divided"

Update: University of Texas President Bill Powers stuck to his prepared remarks (scroll down to view), and the audience — made up mostly of UT faculty, students, and boosters — responded enthusiastically. Powers' expressions of support for the faculty and his reference to Gov. Rick Perry's $10,000-degree challenge met with the biggest responses.

Original Story: University of Texas President Bill Powers isn't mincing words in his State of the University address, scheduled for this afternoon. According to prepared remarks distributed before the speech (and subject to change), he takes head-on the controversy that has dogged the state's higher education community for several months.

"To paraphrase Lincoln, we are a house divided about our fundamental mission and character," he says.

In the remarks, Powers prescribes his own path to bring people back together and implement transformational changes to higher education. He also takes some thinly veiled swipes at those that have criticized the university in recent months, including Rick O'Donnell, the controversial former adviser to the University of Texas System whose hiring sparked much of the controversy.

Months after his position was unceremoniously eliminated, O'Donnell released an analysis of UT data that grouped professors into different categories based on productivity. "Dodgers" were a particularly unproductive subset of the unproductive group he termed "coasters." This did not go over well at UT.

 

In his remarks, Powers says, "Tilting at the windmills of supposed faculty who don't work hard or who don't care about our undergraduates — for all the rhetoric about dodgers and coasters — will simply divert us from the real tasks at hand."

Powers calls for a tone that is more respectful of faculty. "The tone of discussion would take a positive turn if everyone in the UT family — even those who call for more extensive change — would publicly defend our faculty and our campus from outside attacks," he says.

He disputes the notion that UT has its "head in the sand" or its "feet dug in against change." He also answers Gov. Rick Perry's challenge for universities to create a $10,000 bachelor's degree, noting that a quarter of current freshmen — after scholarships and grants — pay less than $2,500 per year for their UT education.

Powers' speech includes a few bold challenges of his own. Playing off remarks he made in May calling for the university to raise its four-year graduation rate to 70 percent from its current perch around 53 percent. Today, he calls for that to happen in five years. 

He pledges $50 million over that time frame toward the effort and calls on the leaders of other top universities in the country to do the same. "If just 20 national research universities invested $50 million over five years, our collective efforts would have a billion-dollar impact," he says. 

Powers notes that his initiatives are complementary to an ambitious action plan outlined by UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa at a recent meeting of the UT System Board of Regents, which called for new programs and investments to boost productivity system-wide.

Powers also addresses concerns about the distribution of the Longhorn Network, a "first-of-its-kind partnership" with ESPN that is slated to bring in $300 million over 20 years for the university. The network, which is broadcasting the speech and which Powers notes has already funded a faculty chair in the art history department, has struggled to reach a wide audience in its opening weeks.

"Our partners are working around the clock to gain the widest possible distribution of this important new communications platform," he says.

Here are Powers' full remarks as prepared, including further discussion of topics such as the purpose of higher education and plans for a medical school in Austin.

 

 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.