What’s Great About UT Is What’s Great About Texas

On the occasion of Texas Independence Day, Alcalde assistant editor and erstwhile reluctant Longhorn Andrew Roush, BA ’09, reflects on what makes our state great.

What’s Great About UT Is What’s Great About Texas

I’ll start with a confession. I never really planned to go to UT. I had my sights set on a certain private institution in New Jersey that also sports the color orange. But I only realized that preference around the beginning of my senior year in high school, which is about 18 years too late to put together the kind of application needed to get into that East Coast bastion of eating clubs and straw hat-wearing, scramble-oriented marching bands.

So I came to UT. It had a number of advantages that, at the time, did not particularly interest me. Notably, it was only 34.4 miles from where I’d lived my entire life and, as my father liked to point out, we could afford it thanks to some forward-thinking savings. These factors did not interest me, of course. I was dead set on academic greatness, or at least what academic greatness looked like on TV. Neo-Gothic architecture, cardigans, bad football teams. Real Harry Potter stuff.

(As if to prove how wrong I was, UT has the world’s best Quidditch team. Go figure.)

And, to be quite honest, UT was the only school I applied to that admitted me. So I took the half-hour drive into Austin to begin the rest of my life. It seemed just the opposite of all my Ivory Tower dreams (besides, of course, the massive white tower at the heart of campus). The buildings were either Spanish Renaissance or some kind of mid-70s Brutalist mistake, it was too hot for sweaters, and in my very first year on campus, Vince Young glided into the Rose Bowl end zone to secure a national championship.

It seemed things couldn’t get any worse.

There were also the kinds of genuine anxieties that strike many incoming freshman. I felt like a number, not a student. The first-year survey courses were not the tiny, Socratic seminars I’d been promised by TV. It should be pointed out that the university has implemented a slate of programs targeting these very problems, but at the time, they had either not been developed or I was too busy pouting. But, like so many UT students, I began to find my place. I made friends, and most importantly, I learned.

Yes, I learned all the things my degree track required me to learn, but I also learned to love UT. But when I look around campus, when I tell people I work for the alumni association, when I have to think of why UT is indeed a first-class university, I don’t really talk about the McDonald Observatory, or the world-class accounting program, or our Nobel laureates. I don’t even talk about the football team.

What makes UT great is what makes Texas great. It’s the power of this place to bring together radically different people and compel them to work together, or at least get a sense of one another. The greatest thing we can learn about is each other, and that’s what a great university is all about. It’s a promise that draws people together and doesn’t blunt their differences, but forces us to understand them, and in doing so, to understand each other.

What makes UT great is what makes Texas great. It’s the power of this place to bring together radically different people.

It’s the pioneer spirit, the frontier. And with due apologies to Frederick Jackson Turner, that’s what Texas history is all about.

Today is Texas Independence Day, the day on which 59 delegates proclaimed Texas’ independence from Mexico. But the men who signed the declaration in a cold wooden shack near the Brazos weren’t really Texans like us. They were inventing Texas, but they were a motley cast of Tejanos, Tennesseans, Virginians, and more. They were the sons of German millwrights, they were disgraced politicians, and they were adventurers. Taken together, they had wildly different life experiences and skills. But they shared a set of values and a vision, and together, they helped invent this thing we call Texas.

At UT, I learned there’s power in bringing together a diverse group of people in pursuit of a goal. Businesses know this, and they use it to their advantage. But at the time, I just hadn’t seen much diversity. I was a middle-class white guy (still am). I hung out, mostly, with other middle-class white guys. We had a pretty great time, and I lived with those guys for most of my college career. But because of UT, I made other friends. Without UT, I may not have known a first-generation Indian-American from Sugar Land who became a mentor to me. Or a Pakistani immigrant who moved to Austin and became his high school’s homecoming king. Or my friends from Monterrey, or the Valley, or Russia, or China, or that place that always seemed so foreign to me growing up—North Texas.

Could I have gotten a similar experience at that Ivy League school—or any large school, for that matter? Probably. But it wouldn’t have been so deeply connected to my sense of self, my Texanness, if you’ll forgive the term. The University of Iowa is a terrific institution, but it just doesn’t capture the imagination or imply opportunity the way Texas does, does it? As the state’s flagship, UT draws people in, not just to the promise of higher education, but the promise of Texas.

It’s the same promise those 59 men first set out when they took up their pens in shivering hands and signed the declaration 179 years ago today. They weren’t united because they were a homogenous group, they were united by a common enemy, and in defeating that enemy, they shared a desire for something better. As is the case in so many of America’s defining moments, they were bonded not by their differences, but by what made them the same. Those differences, though, are what made them stronger, smarter, and more nimble than the challenges they faced. It’s not always easy to recognize that value, especially when it grates against our instincts or when we’re simply ignorant.

That value is reflected in the phrase e pluribus unum, of course, but I’d offer two others.

The first is our Texas state motto, taken from the state’s very name. Texas comes from a Caddo Indian word the Spanish translated as tejas, meaning ally, or friend, hence our elegant, one-word motto: Friendship. We Texans are not all the same, but we’re all Texans.

The second is a phrase that embodies a desire to protect what makes Texas special. It is the motto of the university, a phrase taken from the second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar. It was, of course, rewritten in Latin to make it seem more like those old schools back East, but it says this: The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.

At the time, state leaders weren’t concerned with job training or the need for a more credentialed workforce. Farmers didn’t need degrees, after all (sorry, Aggies). The need for education in the broadest sense is the need to protect our institutions and our values, to give citizens a shot at understanding the world more fully because they had a stake in shaping it.

That’s what makes Texas great, and—as I eventually learned—what makes UT great.

Illustration by Melissa Reese


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