UT President Jay Hartzell On Leading Through a Fall Semester Unlike Any Other

As Jay Hartzell comes into focus on my screen, he’s eager to show me his burnt-orange tie, holding it up to his computer camera so I can get a clear look. “I’m ready!” he says. He’s telling me he’s prepared for his socially distant portrait for this magazine. But he could just as easily be saying he’s ready for something much more momentous: his new role as interim president of The University of Texas at Austin. 

It’s mid-July, nearly two months since Hartzell—who has been on faculty since 2001 and became dean of McCombs School of Business in 2016—assumed his interim role. Named the sole finalist in UT’s search for a new president, he is replacing Greg Fenves, who left for Emory University in June after five years as UT Austin president. Since then, Hartzell has been preparing the university for the fall semester as COVID-19 continues to spread across Texas, moving classes online but still opening the larger classrooms on campus to 40 percent seat capacity. And as the national Black Lives Matter gained momentum in Austin this summer, Hartzell has also had to navigate the calls from students to make major changes to the university’s campus and traditions.  

In the midst of all this, the Alcalde caught up with Hartzell, PhD ’98, Life Member, to talk about the pandemic, “The Eyes of Texas,” and his plan to lead the university through unprecedented times. 

How’s it been? You’ve really hit the ground running. 

Yes. How’s it been? [Laughs] It’s been good. I’ve had a lot of help from people who’ve been in their roles under President Fenves’ leadership, so, it’s probably going smoother than even I expected. But it’s certainly the case that we have a lot of challenges on our plate. It’s an unusual time.  

How are you feeling about the fall? Are you confident that UT can keep students, faculty, and staff safe this semester?  

I am. We’re going to have to continue to learn and adjust. What isn’t certain is how people are going to behave. It’s hard to predict that. But returning is important for our students and for what we do. Part of what’s special about a university is that we can do it together. There is going to be some inherent risk in personal interaction but I’m hoping and expecting we can all do the right things to really mitigate that risk.  

How do you incentivize the Longhorn community to practice safety on and off campus?  

It’s challenging because we’re asking people to do things like wear masks, and it’s not really for themselves as much as it is for others. You’re asking people to do something personally costly for the benefit of the greater good. There are a lot of things like that that exist in society today. So it’s trying to tap into some of that. We’ve got a group that [Moody School of Communication] Dean Jay Bernhardt is leading, “Protect Texas Together.” It’s trying to get people to think about others even when no one’s watching. I wear a mask for you, and you wear a mask for me.  

Looking at the bigger picture, how do you see COVID-19 shaping higher education?   

It’s going to be a strange year for so many people, and we’re all going to have to be pretty flexible and realize that we may think we know how it’s going to unfold but it could change at any moment. There’s newfound appreciation of the role of technology. I think that will largely change things that were going to happen anyway at an accelerated rate. Whether it was resistance to having office hours via Zoom or delivering part of our courses online. We learned what works well remotely and what we miss about working in-person.   

You put out a statement regarding the demands issued by student athletes. How did you work with different groups on campus to address these issues?  

Well we’re not done, in the sense that there’s a lot of implementation work to be done. But looking back at the process, it was rewarding. I met some great people and heard their stories. Some of those are hard to take and hit close to home for me. I can feel their frustrations or pain depending on the situation. I came out believing this is a chance for us to do better for our students. To do better for our campus. And also, frankly, to get some stuff out in the open and come out of this more united. I came out of it having been challenged and changed, but also with a lot of hope.  

On that note of unity, “The Eyes of Texas” is often used as a uniting force. In keeping it alive, are you concerned at all about it being divisive among students?  

Yeah. I’ve been concerned about it. If things had gone differently, or don’t go well, this unifying symbol for our community could be divisive. That’s where we started the whole conversation. As we talk to people about the song, so much of the challenge is in its historical origins being linked to racist activities, practices, times, events . . . people don’t always know that. So, my real hope and belief is that in surfacing that history we can start to heal.   

It’s a learning process. Did you know about campus’ racist past—from the buildings to the song—before?  

I had not seen [Professor Ted Gordon’s] Racial Geography Tour before. I knew there were certain names, figures, elements on campus that were challenging and had these issues in the past. But certainly, I know more now—not that I know everything. I’ve been really inspired by Dr. Gordon, who’s one of the experts on campus history. What I’ve taken away from him is that we have this special opportunity. Part of what we do that’s special as an institution is teach and learn and discover things. We can take this challenging time to do a better job with all of that.   

What do these efforts look like moving forward?   

Part of it is to continue to talk about it, build on it, focus on it. It’s being intentional. I see the statement we made as a process more than necessarily concrete steps. Some initiatives have been underway that President Fenves helped launch, like the Texas Advance Commitment, which will have a profound impact over the years on our ability to recruit Black students and other students. 

Why is it important to make these changes and ensure Black students, and students of color, succeed here?  

Think about our role in the state of Texas. It’s to attract the very best and brightest and set them up to succeed and to train future leaders. And if there’s a part of our talent pipeline that doesn’t feel like this is a place they want to come, then that’s a missed opportunity for our university and for our state. And I think for our country. It’s on us to make sure that the best and brightest not only believe they can succeed here but actually can.   

How do you approach fostering relationships with students?  

Part of my approach is being open to the students, being myself, and realizing everybody has their own approach to things. You just never know what student might be the one who calls you back five years later and asks you a question where you might have a chance to really be helpful at the right moment in time.  

How can alumni help set up students for success post-grad?  
Just making sure that people feel like they can stay connected. We need to make that easy and well understood and lower costs to people to get engaged and find things they’re passionate about. We need to present opportunities. For example, in the world of COVID-19 a lot of students’ internships and job opportunities evaporated. Alumni in many cases may know of an opportunity, then they need somebody for something. They may be willing to structure something a little bit creatively or different to help out a fellow Longhorn.  

Being a Texas Ex yourself, how has that influenced the way you plan to lead the university?  

Perhaps it’s a little bit easier for me to think about being in the student’s shoes. I’ve been there. It gives me just a little bit more of an insight into what’s distinctive here. What’s our special sauce? It’s probably easier for me to connect to our culture. I love this place, I’m not alone in that, and I think that’s what helps all of us fight through things like COVID-19, find ways to teach and learn online, and get that work published. Having gone here has helped fuel my passion for the university. Just like it has for so many others.   

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Photograph by Jeff Wilson


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