‘The Dancer Makes the Dance’: Bill Powers at His Final State of the University Address

State of the University 2014

“You might say I fell in love,” UT president Bill Powers said of the August day in 1977 when he arrived on campus to teach at the law school.

So began Powers’ ninth and final State of the University address, held each year around UT’s Sept. 15 birthdate. Powers reminisced about the UT’s strong tradition and his 37 years on the Forty Acres, plus what he sees as the broad vision for Texas in the future. Speaking specifically of the Republic of Texas bicentennial as a landmark date, in 2036, Powers outlined the progress made since he took over as president and the necessary values UT must have to become the greatest public institution in the world.

One main tenet of his speech was money: The capital campaign was extremely successful, surpassing its initial $3 billion goal by $115 million. But, as Powers noted in what he referred to as his “Moneyball,” approach, “Spreading resources is easy. That is what institutions like UT have historically done. Being selective is hard.” It is not enough to simply raise money—even though the figure is astoundingly high—if the resources aren’t appropriated smartly. “Merely spreading our resources is the surest path to B+ and mediocrity,” Powers said, echoing his line from a previous address, in which he said, “B+ is our biggest enemy.”

Powers also spent much of his speech praising the importance of research. “Where will we be at the Texas bicentennial if we shortchange the future now by not doing basic research and by not educating our students in a research environment?” he said, also noting that, “Apple didn’t discover the basic science that led to the iPhone; university researchers who had no interest in iPhones did.” He highlighted the value of research via the idea that students are kept out of the work force for four or more years—especially graduate students. “It won’t just be the immediate knowledge and skills they learn,” Powers said, “it will be their analytic ability and creativity.”

Powers quoted Irish poet W.B. Yeats when discussing the importance of faculty shaping courses for students, not administrators.

“O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

“We can’t,” Powers said. “The dancer makes the dance, and the dance makes the dancer. Our dancers are our faculty. They make the dance.” And with that, Powers says, comes a certain flexibility that faculty needs to be afforded, especially in failure. Without the safety net of knowing you can try and fail, innovation is stifled. “We won’t get innovation if everyone is afraid of getting slapped every time an experiment in innovation doesn’t work,” he said. Powers harkened back to the budgeting issue when discussing faculty as well, marrying his selectivity notion with the idea that UT has to take some risks in order to stay competitive: “We did this by being more aggressive in our budgeting assumptions,” Powers said. “Yes, that creates some risk, but the risk of eroding the quality of our campus is far greater.”

Powers also took time to praise the creation of the Dell Medical School, the Freshman Research Initiative, and UT’s signature and massive open online courses as examples of how the university is among the greatest public institutions in the world.

Powers signed off by thanking the staff on campus, saying, “We come to campus every day and sometimes take for granted that things work. Things work at UT because of our staff.” He then thanked the students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the university.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you,” Powers said, for the final time on that stage. “God bless you, and hook ’em horns.”

Here were some reactions on Twitter around the Longhorn Universe:

Photo by Marsha Miller.


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