Nurturing the Soul of a Public Research University
AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center
The University of Texas at Austin
January 18, 2012
Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas, has become an outspoken defender of public universities in the emerging debate about their future in Texas. At the Gulen Institute’s Luncheon Forum, Powers addressed a distinguished audience of educators and state legislators, thanking them for their willingness to listen to each other’s positions on education reform. He argued that the important questions of affordability and productivity have to be framed within the broader question: “What do we expect our universities to do?” Improving the efficiency of administration and curricula is certainly a worthy goal, but Powers insisted that unless there is consensus on the fundamental purpose of a public research university, no progress can be made.
This is not evidence, as some opponents suggest, that universities are resistant to change. Powers offered the historical development of the university, from early Greek and Vedic examples to the research model of nineteenth-century Germany, as proof of the dynamic nature of the institution. And as educational opportunities were opened to women, minority students, first generation students, and poor students in the twentieth-century, the university became both the agent and consequence of vast cultural change. Powers concluded that “change has been part of the DNA of the university from the beginning.” The debate about higher education should begin by acknowledging: “There will be change, and we need to be engaged in actively directing it.”
The university’s purpose, Powers stated, is to allow students and faculty the opportunity to pursue knowledge for its own sake. He admitted that this makes it a strange institution: “We take young people, mature and ready to be productive members of the workforce, and we ask them to lie fallow for four years.” But Powers argued that this time of academic incubation allows students to become even more productive members of society, while the research conducted in these institutions prepares the way for the innovations that will shape the future.Last modified: June 27, 2023