Controversial university president: Stop pushing for immediate gratification

President’s speech seen as a micro-study of the pressures currently facing research and teaching universities

president-research-universitiesAs education leaders nationwide grapple with defining the true purpose of institutions of higher learning in the 21st century, Bill Powers used the occasion of his last annual speech as president of the University of Texas at Austin to make what may have been his most impassioned plea for the importance of teaching and research to date.

“We are often asked to justify the kind of education we offer at a teaching and research university,” Powers told students, faculty and alumni who packed into UT-Austin’s Student Activities Center Ballroom for his annual “State of the University” speech Monday.

Not mincing words, the embattled yet popular president of nearly nine years said universities keep the brightest young people from the workforce “because we think those students will be more creative and innovative in the future.”

“It’s the broad outline for the value proposition of a great research and teaching university like UT,” he said. “I believe in it deeply. I have staked my reputation on it.”

His message was unmistakable: an innovative curriculum, plus faculty given the freedom to experiment and fail equals thoughtful future leaders. Anything less — anything that sacrifices long-term yields for instant gratification, that sets aside future goals for the passion and drama of the here and now — is unacceptable. He asked those assembled to remember this over the next two decades, as Texans look ahead to the state bicentennial in 2036.

“We need to do more than just focus on the cost side, simply making our work as cheap as possible,” said Powers.

(Next page: Powers’ own struggle and a new “third-wave” institution)