Final Thoughts on an Unusual Commencement Weekend

ECommencement 2015

With Josh Aldred and Esperance Nasezerano

As you all know, for the first time in many years, our university-wide spring commencement ceremony had to be cancelled on account of dangerous weather. All of our college and school graduation ceremonies took place. And we convened a small ceremony inside the Main Building, where our keynote speaker, Darren Walker, delivered an inspiring address for our graduates to watch online. You can watch or read his speech here.

On Sunday night, the weather cleared enough for us to invite graduates to the Main Mall, where I “conferred” their degrees and we all enjoyed the traditional fireworks show. (You have your degree whether you were there or not.)

I’m always impressed by our graduates’ stories of achievement and persistence. And I’d like to share just three of those many stories with you here:

Josh Aldred is receiving his PhD in civil and environmental engineering from the Cockrell School of Engineering. Josh studied the benefits of using activated carbon air filters to improve health in buildings. By collaborating with UT Austin Environmental Health and Safety on improvements in one campus building, he was able to cut indoor ozone levels by nearly half while simultaneously saving $50,000 a year. This strategy might be used in new campus construction such as the Engineering Education and Research Center and the Dell Medical School.

Josh is also a major in the Air Force and has been deployed in Afghanistan, Qatar, Oman, and Iraq, where he led a work-training and education mission called The Village of Hope, teaching young men who were former militants to read and do basic math. Josh is headed to Korea this summer for a one-year tour and then plans to teach civil engineering at the Air Force Academy. Thank you, Josh, for all you’ve done, and congratulations!

ECommencement 2015

Computer science graduate Brianna Connelly

Brianna Connelly earned a degree in computer science from the College of Natural Sciences. Bri led a team of 13 students in the IBM Watson competition to win $100,000 in seed funding. They used the money to develop an app that uses artificial intelligence to help Texas residents find health care, food assistance, and other social services. That class project has now become a company, and Bri, who was the only female in some of her computer science classes, is the CEO.

She was an officer in the Women in Computer Science organization and helped found what is probably the first co-ed computer science fraternity in the country. She also was a member of the prestigious Turing Scholars program. She starts this summer as a product manager at Google. We’re looking forward to watching your success. Congratulations, Bri!

Ten years ago, on the night of August 13th, 12-year-old Esperance Nasezerano of Congo and her family were huddled in a U.N. refugee camp in Burundi when armed soldiers began shooting and setting fire to the tents in which they were sleeping. One hundred sixty-six people died that night in front of her, and Espy herself was shot in the back.

She recovered from her injury, and two years later, her family moved to the United States and settled in Fort Worth. She began learning English at 16, graduated high school, and enrolled in a community college. As a junior, she transferred to UT. Here, she majored in international relations and global studies in the College of Liberal Arts and worked in our International Office.

Espy has seen the worst of humanity, but she lives with optimism. She wants to attend graduate school and then work for the U.N. in human rights advocacy. Espy says, “I am just so thankful to God and America for giving me a second chance to live again and have the opportunity to do things that most of my friends will never have the chance to do.” Esperance, you give us all hope for a brighter future. Congratulations!

Like Josh, Bri, and Espy, each of our graduates has a unique story. But they all share the common experience of being graduates of one of the finest institutions in the world, The University of Texas at Austin. You can find more profiles of our outstanding new alumni here.

I hope all of you were able to be with your loved ones and celebrate graduation in your own special way. Our thoughts and prayers are with those throughout Texas who are recovering from the extraordinary weather of the past week.

Bill Powers signature

New study confirms huge economic impact of UT Austin


I want to share with you the results of a recently completed study that examined UT Austin’s impact on the economy of the state. The study, conducted by the firm Economic Modeling Specialists International, found that in fiscal year 2013, human capital creation, start-up and spin-off companies, operations spending, and payroll at UT Austin, together with the spending of our students and visitors, generated $8.8 billion in added income to the Texas economy.

This constitutes a 15-to-1 return on investment by the state, and is the equivalent in economic activity of creating 133,000 jobs every year.

Perhaps the most striking number in the report is the long-term economic impact. UT’s enrolled students in 2013 (the year studied) will generate an estimated $23.5 billion for the state’s economy over the course of their careers. And Texas communities will realize $2.8 billion in savings related to reduced crime, lower unemployment, and increased health and well being across the state due to benefits associated with UT Austin.

We know from many anecdotes how important the state’s flagship university is to the Texas economy. These numbers corroborate those stories. A summary of the report can be viewed here. The full, 67-page report can be viewed here.

What starts here changes the world.

Bill Powers signature

Texas Ex Jordan Spieth wins Masters


Last night, we lit the Tower orange for Texas Ex Jordan Spieth, who won the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, finishing 18-under-par. Jordan helped lead the Longhorns to the 2012 National Championship. At 21, he became the youngest to win the Masters since Tiger Woods in 1997.

It was Jordan’s third win on the PGA Tour and fifth win worldwide. He is now ranked No. 2 in the world. Jordan’s win was the first by a former Texas player in a major championship since Justin Leonard won the British Open in 1997. He is the second Texas Ex to win the Masters, joining Ben Crenshaw, who won in 1984 and 1995. And Jordan is now the fifth former Texas player to win a major championship, joining Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Justin Leonard, and Mark Brooks.

Congratulations, Jordan, and Hook ’em Horns!

Bill Powers signature




Photo UT Athletics

40 Hours for the Forty Acres raises more than 250% of goal


Gage Paine, vice president for student affairs, joins student organizations in raising money and awareness on the Main Mall during a special student event Thursday.


On Wednesday, the University launched its Second Annual 40 Hours for the Forty Acres campaign to engage our alumni, students, and friends in giving back. Our goal was to raise $140,000. At the end of the 40 hours, more than 2,000 of you had given more than $367,690 to deserving programs all across our campus.

Your gifts are making a difference. You’re providing high-tech simulation equipment at the School of Nursing and undergraduate scholarships at the Cockrell School of Engineering. You’re helping to renovate RecSports’ beloved Whitaker Fields and providing funds for Student Emergency Services and International Student and Scholar Services. More than 40 student organizations also participated, and you showed them how much you believe in their efforts by donating to the Communication Council, Voices Against Violence, Texas Rock Climbing, and many others.

I’m heartened by the support you continue to show for UT, and I’m especially proud of those students who made their first gift. Once again you have risen to the challenge and more than doubled the goal. Thank you for your generosity.

Hook ’em!

Bill Powers signature

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center director joining UT architecture faculty

Rieff, Susan 2011

One positive development early in my tenure as president was UT Austin’s acquisition of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. With the support and guidance of the Johnson Family, we were able to take a national treasure and give it both a stable future and a heightened focus on research and teaching.

The key person in this transition and in the center’s development over the past 10 years has been Executive Director Susan Rieff, who is departing the center on March 31. Happily, Susan is remaining in the UT family and joining our School of Architecture as a senior research fellow in the Center for Sustainable Development.

I want to thank Susan for all she has done to make the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center a jewel in the University’s crown. A national search for her successor will be underway soon.

What starts here changes the world.

Bill Powers signature




Photo by Marsha Miller/UT Austin


A message from Chancellor McRaven

Today, on Chancellor Bill McRaven’s first day of service to the UT System, I want to welcome and congratulate him. We are fortunate to have him at the helm. It’s my pleasure to share with the UT family the following statement from Chancellor McRaven.


Dear Friends,

Today marks the first day of what I hope will be many years serving The University of Texas System. My wife, Georgeann, and I are both extremely excited about representing this magnificent institution.

I want to begin by thanking the Board of Regents for its confidence in me and for giving me this opportunity to serve as the UT System Chancellor. I will work tirelessly to advance the goals of higher education, research, clinical care and service to the State of Texas. As a public servant, I can think of no nobler calling.

I also want to thank former Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. His phenomenal leadership over the past six years has made the UT System one of the finest in the nation and has fundamentally changed the lives of Texans by increasing the availability of and expanding the opportunities for higher education. It is a legacy of which to be exceptionally proud. Additionally, Francisco and Graciela were incredibly kind to both Georgeann and me as we worked through the transition. We felt at home right away. I wish the Cigarroas all the very best as they return to San Antonio and the UT Health Science Center.

As I take the reins of the UT System I cannot help but be influenced by my time in the service. In my 37 years in the military, I served in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe and throughout the United States. My experiences interacting with people from around the world have shaped my thinking about the uniqueness of Texas, the role of higher education, research, and health care, and the rewards of service to our state and nation.

As I traveled around the world it never ceased to amaze me that when I told people I was from Texas, everyone I encountered, from the youngest Afghan girl to the oldest African villager, had a common view of Texas and Texans. They understood that Texans were men and women of character and integrity — strong-willed, independent, bold, risk-takers, who helped the weak and downtrodden, who got up when they were knocked down, and who never complained about their struggles. Texans wore boots and big hats and sat tall in the saddle because there was a grandness in their manner. They understood that being a Texan was something special.

This image of Texans was universal, and we have rightly earned that reputation through generations of men and women who came to this great land and made it what it is today. We are Texans, and that should mean something in everything we do — particularly in higher education, research, health care and service.

In my travels I saw what a good education can do to transform a society. A good education reduces fear, bigotry, racism, and inequality. A good education brings dignity and respect. A good education provides new opportunities and, above all, a good education gives hope and a belief in the future.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw young Americans fighting alongside their Iraqi and Afghan partners to secure schoolhouses so young women could have an education.
I saw children from Mali and Chad, Colombia and Peru, the Philippines and Indonesia overcome every obstacle in their path just to go to a cramped one-room shack so they could get an education.

When you have to overcome tremendous odds, you have an entirely new appreciation for the value of education. Everything is better with a good education.
Consequently, we should ensure that every young Texan has the opportunity for an education, but we should also teach them to overcome obstacles and let nothing stop them from achieving their goals.

As a Navy SEAL, my life often depended on the quality of the technology that we used for our missions. We have the best special operations forces in the world because we select the finest men and women and because we have state-of-the-art technology. This technology includes GPS, night vision goggles, frequency hopping radios, unmanned aerial vehicles, sonars for our mini-subs, terrain-following radar for our special aircraft, laser designators on our weapons, body armor, special operation tourniquets for our medics, and prosthetics for our wounded, just to name a few.

This technology didn’t appear overnight. It was the product of long, hard work in the research labs. Sometimes it meant years of small incremental steps that suddenly led to dramatic changes and revolutionary advances. It also required exceptionally dedicated scientists and clinicians, administrators and staff support and sufficient funds to make these ideas come to life.

When I look at the magnificent research going on across the UT System — both at the academic and health institutions — I understand and value the work in a way that others may not, because a lot of the research that starts in Texas has saved lives on the battlefield. I have seen it firsthand.

I also value service — service to the nation and service to the State of Texas. I have been fortunate to serve with some of the finest young men and women this country has ever produced. After 9/11 these “millennials” joined the military and the State Department and the CIA and the FBI and non-governmental organizations, and they served wherever they were needed. And many of them either didn’t come back or they came back forever changed.

These are the same young men and women who are being raised in Dallas and Houston, Brownsville and El Paso, towns big and small alike. These are the same young men and women who are coming to our UT institutions around the state. They value service and we should find every opportunity to help them serve Texas and the nation.
Finally, I have been raised in a culture that values leadership. From the time I attended Naval ROTC at UT Austin, the military has instilled in me the core values necessary to lead. But leadership is not the sole purview of the military.
In fact, I believe that the purpose of education is to build great leaders. From anthropologists to zoologists, from accountants to physicists, great leaders are people who make changes for the betterment of society: a better way to understand shifting demographics, a better business model, a better way to treat cancer, a better legal argument or a better understanding of why we exist. As Texans, building great leaders should be part of our DNA.

However, I don’t believe you can build great leaders without creating an environment that challenges them, that encourages them — an environment that propels them forward.

Within The University of Texas System, that environment resides in our academic and intellectual freedom. I strongly believe that as students, faculty, and researchers, we should challenge conventional wisdom. We should challenge the great philosophers. We should challenge the nature of the universe. We should challenge our economic models, our governmental models, and our business models. Nothing should go unchallenged. We should be relentless in our pursuit of new ideas.

We should make people mad, frustrated, irate and alive with curiosity. We should publish papers that shake the foundation of conventional thinking.

We need students who challenge professors and professors who challenge students. I want those who educate our young men and women to come to work every day with a little anxiety, wondering whether they will be good enough for our students. I want students who wake up every morning excited about their classroom and what they might learn. I want researchers who push the envelope on every new idea, who never accept the existing theories and trends.

All of this should produce leaders in every field of endeavor. Leaders who are not afraid of the professional risk that comes from challenging the established thinking. We need leaders who can inspire, who can create and produce. We need leaders who can educate the next generation of thinkers. We must be known as the institution that builds leaders through world-class education, cutting-edge research, uncompromising intellectual integrity, and the highest ethical standards.

If we do this, we will continue to recruit the finest minds in the world because they will want to come to institutions of The University of Texas System. They will want to come to a place where we have the best facilities, the greatest intellectual freedom, and a student body and faculty that rival any institution in the country.

As Chancellor, I see my primary role as supporting the magnificent academic and health institutions that are the foundation of the UT System. The message to the System Administration is that we, the System, must add value to the institutions. We must wake up every morning with the goal of making the individual institutions the best they can be.

We must put the institutions in a position to thrive. We will do so by lessening the bureaucracy, creating a more entrepreneurial environment and encouraging risk-taking. My promise to all the senior leaders in our academic and health institutions is that I will work for you — for your goals — to advance your causes. I will need to earn your trust and I will work hard to do so every single day.

My duty is also to the Board of Regents, which has a responsibility to provide oversight and guidance to the System to advance the goals of higher education and research. I look forward to working with the Chairman and all the regents to forge a future that surpasses all expectations and provides an unshakable foundation for generations to come.

Additionally, as we prepare for the convening of the 84th Legislature, I can think of no better place to start building the future than by working with our new state leaders and legislators to outline our goals and identify the assistance we need to make those goals a reality.

I am also excited about the prospects of partnering with the other great academic and research institutions and with industry in the state and beyond. I will quickly reach out to leaders in these areas to find ways to improve collaboration and cooperation for the good of all the people of Texas.

Also, for the associations, councils, foundations, and groups that support, advise and contribute immensely to the advancement of The University of Texas System, rest assured that I not only value but will actively seek your involvement in the affairs of our institutions. The more voices I hear, the more clearly I will be able to determine the correct path ahead.

Lastly, there have been disagreements and disputes that have harmed the reputation of this great UT System and, as a result, we have missed opportunities to move forward. We are better than that. It is time to resolve those arguments and look to the future. My number one priority will be to rebuild the trust between all stakeholders —all of those who want to see the best from UT institutions.

Never in my life have I seen such promise and such potential to change the lives of Texans across the state. The University of Texas System is poised for greatness, but greatness does not come without hard work, dedication, and a clear vision of the goals at hand. I am confident that by pulling together we can forge a future that is befitting of the majesty that is Texas. I look forward to working with all of you to make that future a reality.

Thank you very much!

Bill McRaven