Aerial view of TAMU

State of the University Address


October 4, 2016

Kohl, thank you for that great introduction! And thank you for representing so honorably your fellow students today and every day. I’m pleased to see that your family is here and know that they are proud of you, as we are.

Colleagues, I’m happy to be with you today, 140 years to the day since the birth of this university.  We’re meeting here today and broadcasting to colleagues at other campuses from the Arthur E. Martell Lecture Hall in the Chemistry building on the College Station campus. Dr. Martell, for whom this room is named, joined Texas A&M in 1966, became head of the Department of Chemistry for many years and retired in 2001. He is credited with significant advances in the field of inorganic chemistry. Dr. Martell secured substantial research grants, built highly collaborative teams, and quadrupled the size of the department, making it one of the best in the country, a distinction it continues to hold to this day.  After retiring in 2001, he continued to work in the lab several days a week.

I thought it important to give this speech here, in an academic building on campus, both as a reminder of our commitment to the continued pursuit of excellence in learning and discovery and as a thank you to those of you who have followed your own calling to either teach or, as administrators or staff, to support our world class educational environment.

Colleagues, the State of the University is great 140 years on... By the way…. Does anyone know what you call the 140th anniversary?!

100 is “centennial” - that’s easy.

125 is a bit more of a tongue-tier: that would be “quasiquicentennial.” 150 is hard enough to say; forget about spelling: “sesquicentennial.” And 140? Who celebrates 140? WE DO! Today! Is there a name for it? In fact, there is. It’s “quadrasquicentennial.” See, four years of college Latin weren’t entirely wasted.

And it’s a wonderful day for our university. I look forward to toasting with you later today our beloved school and the faculty, administrators, staff, current and former students who together make up the Aggie network that is 500,000 strong throughout the world.

The State of the University is great. Our student body is more diverse than ever, more than 66,000 strong. Research funding surpassed $866 million in the last year, spurred on by many of you and the hard work you do, enhanced by the Chancellor’s Research Initiative, and further grown by the Governor’s University Research Initiative which together have added tens of millions of dollars in funding.

I will spare you the litany of college rankings stats regurgitated on demand by Presidents at campuses throughout the nation and instead say that, while there is ample room to grow, we are clearly owning our seat at the national table in terms of academic excellence, affordability, post-graduate earnings, and impact, as reflected in the rankings. Texas A&M is third among universities with the most CEOs in the Fortune 500, making the joke ring true: What do you call an Aggie five years after graduation …. BOSS! And in the very top handful of universities recognized for their impact and research, their access and affordability and their service to the nation.

I am the 25th President of this wonderful University.  I have been working here for nearly 18 months. That’s long enough to get past the glorious time when one can claim to be the ‘new kid on the block.’ ln fact, that period of time officially ended somewhere between my announcement as your President, which earned a whopping 2100 Facebook “likes” and the announcement of Reveille IX four weeks later, which garnered 17,000 “likes.” – Important perspective as I began my job here!

The newness in the role a distant memory, I’m thrilled to speak with you today about three strategic imperatives that revolve around collaboration. Collaboration not just for the sake of it, but to create a better world.

The first strategic imperative is Transformational Learning.

We want 100% of our students to have multiple transformational learning experiences during their time at Texas A&M.

Think for a moment about your own life. About a teacher who took the time to help you learn and hone skills. About a teacher who gave you an entirely new perspective on your own capabilities and your capacity for success. About an experience you had in another culture that changed you. Or work in a lab or on a research project that netted results that may have surprised you and your professor alike. Or perhaps a time when you failed. And learned. Defining moments. People. And periods of life where your mind opened to a whole new paradigm in how you frame life.

I’d like to share one such personal experience of my own. In 2003, Chief Justice William Rehnquist bestowed upon me what I consider one of the great honors of my life. He appointed me to serve on the National Commission commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Brown versus the Board of Education.  As you recall, that 1954 landmark case overruled Plessy vs. Ferguson and the concept of separate but equal – holding instead that we are all inherently equal and that separate is itself inherently inequitable. 

Serving on this commission was a transformative experience for me. Perhaps most impactful was the opportunity to sit down and hear personal accounts from the people who were intimately involved – most notably, the children of the parents who brought about this historic case. They shared their very personal experiences and perspectives as they were living through this extraordinary time – describing their parents’ resoluteness in bringing this case, knowing full well all that they were putting at risk by doing so – losing their jobs, jeopardizing their livelihoods, being ostracized from their communities, subjecting themselves to physical violence and even death. 

I asked these courageous individuals why they thought their parents were willing to put everything on the line, including their lives. Their response was simple. It was the only way to break the cycle of segregation, they said. For children to be equal in America, education is and always will be the key.

These parents understood that with utter clarity, and they embraced this ideal of education as the great equalizer. Education was and still is to this day the cornerstone that has the capacity to unlock a better, more equitable future for all.

It was an extraordinary moment. The exactitude of what they fought to achieve underscored for me the importance of education and its centrality to realizing the American dream. How access to public education is not merely a practical necessity; It is also a moral imperative. This experience ignited in me a passion and deep appreciation for public education that I had never felt before. It was a transformational learning experience – life altering. We have a moral imperative, I truly believe, to offer students not only coursework but also transformational learning experiences.

Many of you are familiar with transformational learning theory already. Essentially, transformational learning has three dimensions: First, psychological, changes in understanding of the self; Second, convictional, clarifying and honing one’s belief systems; and third, behavioral, changes in lifestyle. The result is a new perspective of one’s place in the world and what one can contribute to the world.

We have a distinct advantage in this already at Texas A&M University - an ethos that traces its roots to our founding as a land grant institution. We are a people first connected to the land, literally grounded, who have always sought and seek today to serve others.

In fact, no university with which I’ve been affiliated in my career reaches the heights of the spirit of dedication and service like this university.  What more can we accomplish when we focus on fostering transformational experiences for our students, and also in the training and educational development opportunities made available to our professors, our administrators, and our staff?

I invite you all today to foster an increased number of transformational learning experiences in your own workspaces. For example, for professors that can mean onboarding new faculty to educate them about all of the resources we have. Transformational learning means reaching across departments and colleges within one’s discipline and outside of it to learn and to contribute to the success of each other.

For all students at Texas A&M, not just the top echelon, that means helping them graduate with multiple transformative experiences during their time here. A bold goal, for example, would be that 100% of our students have at least one international experience during their time here. Not just a fun trip, but an experience of impact for a greater study project or internship. The result will change the lives of our students and those with whom they interact - the best way to broaden perspectives on global humanity.

“The Pedagogy Project” is a campus-wide initiative with faculty that you should be hearing more about to help increase student engagement and success in entry level classes. The goal is to help professors develop learning strategies and approaches that genuinely enhance students’ intellectual capabilities, as well as develop skills and learning patterns that enhance their capacity to truly learn during the rest of their time at A & M and throughout the rest of their lives.  It is a measurable endeavor as well – through class evaluations, grades in entry-level classes and success in follow-on courses.

Other transformational experiences include high impact projects, programs such as Transformational Learning Fellows, and undergraduate research fellowships. The heart of transformational learning is to enable students to create their own understanding of the world – based on real data and facts – and organize that understanding in ways that allow them to effectively address real problems in the spaces where they work and live.   

Another example of transformational learning is ENMED. ENMED, short for Engineering and Medicine, is an innovative curriculum that teaches physicians to also be engineers. The coursework combines the practice of medicine with new technology, innovative training and problem solving skills to enhance the quality and delivery of healthcare throughout the United States.  This is a bold opportunity about which I am very excited, so expect to hear more from me, as well as from our Colleges of Engineering and Medicine in conjunction with Houston Methodist Hospital.

Transformational Learning is not limited to professors but extends to the extraordinary work being done by others around campus, including the Office of Student Affairs whose leadership training, programs in Diversity and Inclusion, and individual attention to students help make better leaders. And let us not forget the student-to-student mentoring that also takes place every day, itself transformative.

In the spirit of hastening momentum on this call-to-action to grow transformational, high-impart learning opportunities, I’m announcing $2 million dollars this year devoted to grants for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs that can impact our students in a transformative way. There will be more to come on this in follow-on communications from myself and the Provost in the coming weeks. Again that’s $2 million dollars.  So please open your imagination, creativity, ingenuity and student focus to help us achieve this strategic imperative.

Transformational Learning – the first in our three strategic imperatives in our continual pursuit of excellence.

The second area of focus, or strategic imperative for our university is Discovery and Innovation.  I think a lot about the ideas of discovery and innovation. How are we effectively utilizing the more than $866 million dollars entrusted to us in the last year? What barriers are in place that need to be removed to unlock the greatest potential in all of us? How are we optimizing not just our processes but also our imaginations?

Albert Einstein, in all of his academic prowess, never lost sight of the sense of wonder. He said: “The process of discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.” Let us not forget – in the busyness of our schedules and task lists – to step back and use our imaginations to heighten opportunities for discovery and innovation.

As I have spent time with faculty, staff and students throughout the university, I marvel at the extraordinary research, discovery and innovation already here. And, while I could recount examples of these for days, let me offer just a few in the interest of time:

Environmental resilience presents abundant opportunities for discovery and innovation. From urban ecology to land use and planning, risk mitigation to community resilience from hazards, Texas A&M University already has tremendous skillsets that contribute great value to the world in this regard. To those of you from our Galveston campus joining us by live stream today, I commend you on the work that you do in environmental resilience, including the Institute for Sustainable Coastal Communities, a joint initiative between the College of Architecture and our Galveston campus that looks at macro problems of increasing population growth and development in coastal areas – areas that impact ecological systems and human communities and which, in turn, are being impacted by climate variations and other environmental developments. Did you know that 50% of the world’s population live within 100 miles of a coastline? A fact which in and of itself necessitates an integrated coastal management approach.

Our scientists are thought leaders on this and so much more. One Tree Reef is part of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast. It is the world’s largest coral reef system. Our Department of Oceanography is working with partners globally to reverse effects of carbon dioxide by increasing alkalinity in the seawater and restoring chemical balance for the coral reefs and marine life – as I speak. And they discover even more as they enhance the balance and restoration of these critical environments.

Entrepreneurship is another area where discovery and innovation are in full swing at Texas A&M today.  A division of Mays Business School, The Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship is joined by the Colleges of Liberal Arts, Architecture, and Engineering to develop expertise and differentiation in entrepreneurship. Through a combination of tailored curriculum and experiential opportunities, the Center offers a range of programs that help students innovate, opening doors to a wide array of collaboration that lasts well beyond one’s academic experience and into the next great idea put to work.

Data Science is yet another vital example of discovery and innovation in action that affects every college and department of this university. Information across the globe is extraordinarily digitized like never before.  That can allow us, for example, to enhance healthcare by cross referencing medical profiles with treatments, drugs, interactions and statistics for so-called precision healthcare, as well as more personalized medical treatment. Collaboration is enhanced between data scientists and medical researchers, allowing comparisons of huge data sets to extrapolate valuable information. We will be working towards the creation of the Institute for Data Science to leverage the great work that we do across disciplines and to offer as a resource to find solutions to millions of complex problems worldwide.

What is instructive to me as I recite these great examples, and observe so many others like them, is the degree to which the work is significantly enhanced, accelerated and, in fact, made possible by the collaboration between professors and students from a multitude of disciplines and colleges. 

I believe our capacity to do this kind of multidisciplinary and collaborative work is a great – and, in many ways, unique – strength of this university. At the same time, we have not optimized this great strength and opportunity.

While we have had extraordinary success stories where resources have been adequately deployed and opportunities for collaboration optimized, we clearly have more work to do to make this easier and more feasible throughout the University.  We need to fully address structural barriers, funding streams, evaluative criteria for faculty, and systematic administrative support for these approaches to collaboration. Until we do that, we will continue to have great one-off successes, but we will limit our ability to take advantage of this great strength and slow our pathway to excellence.

To that end, I have established a working group, bearing the optimistic name of “Raising the Bar,” to help us address all these issues and change both our structure and our culture to make the exceptional routine, to allow those professors who wish to collaborate to do so much more easily and seamlessly.  This group will examine how we better design budgets and funding streams, as well as space allocations and curricular requirements, to make it easier for professors and students to work and collaborate across myriad disciplinary boundaries. 

Of course, we also want to provide as much support as possible for all our professors, including those whose work is largely in a single discipline. That is critical as well. Our unique opportunity at this point in time is to enhance support for the kind of great interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and collaborative work that happens here, but frequently happens despite - not because of - institutional support and our academic culture. 

We have two additional groups looking at areas of collaboration around the theme of teaching and researching about innovation, one of the exceptionally important skills and mindsets we want to impart to our students and infuse in our research.  The first group, largely comprised of faculty, is focusing on what it is they want to do.  What precisely is innovation?  How do we understand it? How to we teach it?  What would research in this space look like and how can we foster and support it?   We have urged them to think expansively and creatively without considering administrative or other constraints.  The second group is looking at how our administration and our talented staff can contribute positively to this process.  One might say the faculty are determining what it is they want to do and the administrative group is determining how to make it possible, indeed easy.  I have asked these groups to report out their findings by Nov 1st.

How can you help? We’ve set up an email – not an email to nowhere - but one that will come to my attention – for your concrete recommendations on enhancing discovery and innovation. Discovery and innovation that includes research and more - across all disciplines, all departments, all Colleges and all staff functions such as Human Resources, Finance, Marketing Communications – drawn from your own experiences or that of your colleagues, here or even at other universities you feel are getting it right, that will continue our path to excellence. That email is “Raising the bar”– Raising the bar, one word, at I’ll be checking it later this week and hope to hear from you!

A few preliminary thoughts on how we can better facilitate collaboration at the University level:  First, we will continue to focus on creating and enhancing strong disciplines – making sure our faculty have the resources to compete at the very forefront of their discipline. To do this, I am asking every unit to share by December 1st how they are doing this now and what they need in order to do this better.   Then we will work to help as many as we can to do it better. Second, we will strengthen a multidisciplinary approach – where it makes sense – by using our great intellectual leaders, as well as invited leaders from other institutions, to facilitate working group dialogs centered around core themes. We will identify a cadre of what we might call “Master Facilitators” to assist with these dialog groups with an intent that every department head and more than 1/3 of faculty will have participated in one of these sessions by the end of 2017. And third, we will develop the criteria and goals so bold ideas can break out of our traditional silos.

We believe these efforts will culminate in at least three approaches, two obvious and one novel, but potentially highly useful 1. Centers or Programs that cross some college boundaries (we are good at this but we need to make it easier and more rewarding); 2. Institutes that include many colleges and large numbers of faculty and operate with university and college level support; and 3. Schools that include faculty or students from all colleges, and operate as peers with our current colleges as we move the University forward. This third approach isn’t something we have done before, but we believe it may well make great sense and enable us to significantly enhance our work. 

These are bold goals intended to unlock more discovery and innovation along the way.  And bold as they are, they are just beginning.  I look forward to your ideas and vision to move us even more aggressively and successfully in this direction. 

Building upon our strategic imperatives of transformational learning and discovery and innovation are the results of a job done well – impact. Impact upon the state of Texas, the citizens of which invest in our ability to be here; Impact upon the nation; and Impact upon the world.

We have such impact in a multitude of ways.  We launch into the world highly trained students with a passion and an ability to make the world a better place.  We conduct research that changes the course of people’s lives, of their communities, of the world.  We discover and innovate and project that innovation into the world to great effect.  And central to who we are is service.  We – our faculty, our staff, our students – serve, even as we learn and discover.

The sheer size of impact that we have is enormous. Consider some areas where we are impacting our state. These are examples to help spur our thinking for additional great ideas that can be put into action.

The Center for Urban School Partnerships through the College of Education is helping K-12 schools improve standards, teacher and student retention through training materials, on-call support and information that helps teachers in urban areas close the gap in performance between their schools and those of their suburban counterparts. 

The Veterinary Medical Emergency Team combines first-responder critical care and support to people and animals during natural disasters.

 The Colonias Project with the Department of Architecture supports border communities in need.

The College of Dentistry is itself located in a HUB zone, training dentists - some of whom are from underserved areas - to return to those underserved areas upon graduation. As part of that training, the College conducts more than 100,000 patient visits a year for people in the community.

The College of Nursing is a leader in disaster preparedness and response through simulations such as Disaster Day which offers an interdisciplinary learning experience for medical, nursing, pharmacy, radiology, EMS and physical therapy students - and their community counterparts - to be prepared for whenever needed.

The School of Law has implemented a record number of clinics to give 3rd year students transformational learning experiences while serving clients under the supervision of professors and attorneys. These include: entrepreneurship; Intellectual Property, patent & trademark counsel; international cases to serve state businesses and citizens and to help students who graduate make an immediate impact from the start on the organizations for which they work.

On the national and global levels, we’re seeing tremendous impact in disease mitigation and eradication through preeminent research, mitigation protocols and treatments of epidemics such as the pervasive Zika Virus.

Food and water access and stability research and technology, through the College of Geosciences is making strides in South and Southeast Asia as we better understand and lessen industrial contaminants as well as naturally-occurring arsenic.   

The Nuclear Security Science & Policy Institute is a multidisciplinary organization that spans the Colleges of Engineering, Science, and the Bush School of Government to help safeguard nuclear materials and reduce nuclear threats.

Tremendous examples of real value and global impact.

I apologize to the hundreds of you whose projects have not been mentioned. I am simply amazed by the work I see daily and the meaningful impact it has on others.  Time permits me to mention only a few.  But I recognize and applaud the hundreds of other ways we are making a difference throughout the world.  And I warmly encourage you to seek opportunities to make that difference.  WHAT WE DO MATTERS!  It is of consequence!  We are a unique institution and we make a difference!

 In closing, I say thank you to faculty, staff, administrators, and students. Thank you also to the affiliate organizations who help to raise funds, build awareness among those who may not know us and affinity among those who do across the 500,000-member Aggie network, a network whose support and assistance is vital to our great work.

To be a leading University going into the future we have to lead in the area of BOTH scholars who are disciplinary thought leaders AND scholars who can do great work in a team of colleagues from many disciplines. This means the University must strengthen our culture so that these simultaneous acts are inhibited only by our ability to find the most creative approach and not by our own administrative barriers.

Join me in building out the areas of best practice we’ve talked about across our strategic imperatives – Transformational Learning; Discovery and Innovation; and Impact – by collaborating with colleagues inside and outside of your departments, colleges and schools to continue to drive towards excellence in all that we do.

In closing, I pledge to you today to work collaboratively toward impact, and I’m asking you, again, on this quadrasquicentennial anniversary of the birth of our school to join me in creating a stronger, more creative capacity for collaboration and transformative learning.

For 140 years, what we have done at this university has mattered and has provided a unique foundation for us today. It is up to us to build upon that foundation, to prepare students to create new possibilities for the next 140 years.