Lifting students to their potential. Expanding research. Reinventing health care. These have been some of the running themes for Gregory L. Fenves as University of Texas president, and on Thursday he announced new initiatives along those lines during his fourth state of the university address.
UT will start building a universitywide career center next year inside the Flawn Academic Center to help drive the upward mobility of its students, he said. Faculty members from across the university will join together in earnest this fall to study ways to foster healthy development of children and families struggling with social, behavioral or health adversity. And a financial aid program for incoming students is being expanded to include eligible sophomores, juniors and seniors.
Borrowing a page from the playbook of U.S. presidents delivering state of the union addresses, Fenves singled out a person in the audience at the B. Iden Payne Theatre who illustrates one of his themes — Issac Turrubiate Salinas, a junior from Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande. English is his second language, and no one in his family had attended college, but Turrubiate Salinas is thriving at UT, majoring in economics and government, participating in internships and winning a writing prize.
“Issac’s story reflects the purpose of our university, which is to unlock potential,” Fenves said. “We offer opportunities to talented students from all walks of life.”
Fenves noted that UT did not admit African-American students for half of its 135 years, adding that this history of exclusion and segregation confers a responsibility upon the university to champion diversity. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld UT’s limited use of affirmative action in 2016.
Fenves, 61, who became president of UT in June 2015, uses the annual state of the university address to unveil plans and to reflect on accomplishments and challenges.
In his remarks Thursday, Fenves took note of the National Science Foundation’s recent award of $60 million to UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center for a new supercomputer, dubbed Frontera, that will be a research powerhouse, the fastest supercomputer at any university in the nation.
The financial aid program launched earlier this year is now benefiting about 4,500 undergraduates to the tune of $12.5 million collectively. Students from families with annual incomes as high as $100,000 can be eligible for the grants depending on financial need as determined by a federal formula that takes the size of the student’s family and other matters into account. Students with family incomes of up to $30,000 are guaranteed aid to cover at least their tuition.
Increasing UT’s four-year graduation rate to 70 percent has been a priority for Fenves as it was for his predecessor, Bill Powers. Among freshmen who enrolled in 2013, 65.7 percent graduated in 2017. That was up from 60.9 percent the previous year. Asked whether the 70 percent goal would be achieved when this year’s data become available, Fenves told the American-Statesman: “We’re going to be very close.”
Although Fenves is an engineer who by his own description is no actor, no musician and “definitely not a dancer,” he appreciates the fine arts. He recalled visiting as a teenager the Mexico City home of Frida Kahlo, whose self-portrait is part of the Ransom Center’s collections. He learned during that visit of her lifelong struggle with physical pain and how she transformed adversity into creative expression.
“Every person on our campus faces challenges — in the classroom, in the lab, in the studio, in life,” he said. “Challenges that we take on and transcend.”
Speaking of challenges, he predicted that UT’s football team would beat the University of Southern California on Saturday.