Building on UT Dallas Founders' Vision Together
Presidential Inauguration — President Richard C. Benson
October 27, 2016
Chancellor Bill McRaven, Regent Ernest Aliseda, Regent Brenda Pejovich, Regent Sara Martinez Tucker, esteemed colleagues from UT Dallas and the UT System and distinguished guests, thank you. Thank you, Mary McDermott Cook, president of the Eugene McDermott Foundation; Chuck Davidson MS'80, Distinguished Alumnus award recipient and Development Board member; and Akshitha Padigela, Student Government president, for your kind words of welcome and heartfelt thanks to my wife, Leslie, and sons Kenny and Jimmy, who are here today, and Stephanie, my daughter who is watching the webcast. Thank you all for sharing this special day with me. I am deeply honored to stand before you as the fifth president of The University of Texas at Dallas.
As I embark on this extraordinary journey, I am moved by the tremendous opportunity to build on the vision that was established by the Texas Instruments founders of the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. Were they with us today, I am certain that Eugene McDermott, Cecil Green and Erik Jonsson would be delighted by what this still young university has achieved in 47 years as part of The University of Texas System. It is no small privilege to act upon their vision and follow in the footsteps of our first four presidents: Bryce Jordan, Robert Rutford, Franklyn Jenifer and David Daniel. And thank you, President Rutford, for being here today. Each of these leaders drove an ambitious agenda for advancement, and collectively they saw this University grow to a modern and beautiful campus.
I must tip my hat to the man who has served as our chief academic officer for nearly half of the life of UTD — Executive Vice President and Provost Hobson Wildenthal; and maybe I could ask you to join me in another round of applause for our president ad interim.
You may be sure that I will do everything in my power to be a worthy successor to presidents Jordan, Rutford, Jenifer and Daniel, a worthy partner to Provost Wildenthal and a worthy partner to you all.
At this point, I hope you will permit a bit of reflection on my own path to this wonderful University. My father was a mechanical engineer and my mother was a grade school teacher, and I suppose it only stood to reason that I would grow up to be an engineering educator. Somehow that algorithm broke down with my two younger brothers, one who became a lawyer and the other an entomologist.
My most recent stop was at Virginia Tech, where I was privileged to serve as the dean of engineering. I know that in the minds of many, my training as an engineer comes with certain built in perceptions:
- “Engineers are data-driven problem-solvers.” I like to think that is true for me.
- “We lack an appreciation for all things artistic and beautiful.” I like to think that is not true for me.
- “Engineers are socially clumsy.” Mmmm, maybe.
When The University of Texas Board of Regents appointed me to lead this University in February, someone on social media posted this question: “How will he foster relations with the arts and humanities when all of his background is STEM? A Tier One University should focus on all facets it offers and not just one.” And to that I say, you bet! I could not agree more with the writer's call for breadth, and we'll talk about that more later. But I also hope to pleasantly dispel the assumption about the perceived narrowness of my life's experiences and influences. And by the way, we're being live streamed, so I hope that the person who asked the question sees this.
It is true as a boy in New Jersey I irritated my mother by scattering Erector Set pieces all over the house. My early fascination with the papers on my father's desk full of Greek letters and mysterious mathematical symbols and intriguing Buck Rogers-style drawings inspired me to pursue an education in engineering. That curiosity took me to Princeton, Virginia and UC Berkeley for my education and later to Xerox, Rochester and Penn State and Virginia Tech for my career and now to The University of Texas at Dallas.
As a boy, I developed a love for music. I was a teenager better known for carrying a trumpet than a slide rule. My formative years at Princeton were shaped by time in the lab. I even joined the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in order to do a summer stock production of “West Side Story.” Today I enjoy all forms of music — from classical to classic rock, bluegrass to the blues. And I married well. My wife, Leslie, is a fine string bass player.
Another love is photography. You can't live and work in Rochester, New York, which rightly calls itself the imaging capital of the world, and not get the bug. I also love hiking. You can't live in the lush Appalachian Mountains and not respond to the allure. Today I enjoy blending both hobbies of hiking and photography, and I have been on the hunt since July to find the best place in North Texas to walk and take pictures. So if any of you have some advice, I'd like to get it.
Enough about me. I tell these stories to illustrate how perceptions don't always paint the whole picture of a person or for that matter a university. Perhaps you've heard UT Dallas is merely a night school churning out engineers and MBAs. It looks like an industrial park with its brutalist architecture, offers little to the artistically inclined or the lovers of the arts. It lacks culture and cool. If I may quote from one of my favorite Bix Beiderbecke tunes, "Tain't so."
Here's the truth about what's really happening here. We work and study on a wonderfully landscaped and inviting campus. Let me add my thanks to Margaret McDermott for this most beautiful of all gifts to our University. Thank you so much, Mrs. McDermott. Thousands more students walk down the center mall at noon time than the dinner hour. On and near campus we have a great array of housing and dining options that make this a welcoming environment for all of those out-of-classroom experiences, the ones that lead to lifelong friendships.
We have a campus-wide focus on innovation and entrepreneurship that encourages new ventures and products. We have an interdisciplinary approach, from academics to the design of new buildings. We have an art institute housed in a cutting-edge Arts and Technology building. Thank you, Peter and Edith O'Donnell for that gift. We have a superb faculty teaching students enrolled in more than 135 degree programs. We have an outstanding staff every bit the equal of our talented faculty and students that are passionately devoted to UTD.
UT Dallas is different by design. The differences are our defining characteristic. We are the school where the “rock stars” do things like make animated films, build robots, and play chess. We're the school where students regularly win at the national level in debate, engineering design and competition for business ideas. And UTD is the proud home to fine student-athletes, more than a few of whom have achieved Academic All-American status.
For those reasons and many more than I can list here, students are choosing UTD in ever-increasing numbers. Consider this from Jennifer Steward, a graduate of the Class of 2015:
“It was nice to be valued for my brain instead of my appearance for the first time in my life, where I wouldn't be ostracized for being intelligent. Nor was I alone. For once, I was among peers. There are no words for how good it was to feel normal, and I found it to be plenty social. Social around ideas and research, which will quantifiably make this world a better place. That suited me perfectly.”
Evidently, UT Dallas is suiting more and more people in this area and across the country as well as abroad — we have posted 9 percent annual enrollment gains for the better part of a decade. The students' SAT and ACT scores are among the highest in the state, and we have over 100 national merit scholars in the entering class. Which brings me to the most basic question: Where do we go next?
For starters, we will throw one terrific golden anniversary party in 2019 when we celebrate our 50th year as The University of Texas at Dallas. In anticipation, I've asked Provost Wildenthal to lead the effort to document our first half-century in one readable compendium. Not to put any pressure on Dr. Wildenthal, but the story of UTD's remarkable ascension is worthy of scholarly study.
We also will spend some time looking beyond our 50th year. We will prepare a new strategic plan. Our last update from 2013 is starting to grow a little dated. Interestingly enough, in 2013, we tended to underestimate our eventual achievements. Like any good strategic plan, ours will be broad-based with input from faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members. We will complete it by the end of the spring 2017 semester.
I don't want to get ahead of you on what will be our collective vision and strategy, but I do have some thoughts and predictions of my own. I offer these thoughts as president, but also as one who still possesses a bit of an outsider's perspective and objectivity.
Perhaps the most significant element of our next strategic plan is that it will be the first one written as a Tier One university, rather than as an aspiring Tier One university. For those in the audience who may be visiting our campus for the first time, the drive for Tier One status was President Daniel's brilliantly conceived and executed plan to bring UT Dallas to the highest echelon of research and educational excellence.
He succeeded. You succeeded. Whether measured by our recent elevation to the Highest Research Activity by the Carnegie Classification, the soon-to-be acquired eligibility for the National Research University Fund, or the great demand for our graduates, UT Dallas is an impactful university. Of course, Tier One status is a moving target, so we will not let up in our efforts to grow as scholars and educators. We will benchmark against the best Carnegie R1 public universities and will act with the confidence that comes with a proven record of rapid advancement.
Some elements of our strategic plan will be very familiar and time-tested. Most notably, we will continue to act upon the dream of our three Texas Instruments founders. Let me say their names again. Eugene McDermott, Cecil Green and Erik Jonsson. As an aside, we will be dedicating the Texas Instruments Plaza tomorrow on the North Mall to honor these visionaries and the continuing partnership that we have with this leading technology company. The goal of the founders was to create the MIT of the Southwest. It is a great concept, but it cannot be the whole of our vision. We need to continue to refine the distinctive identity of The University of Texas at Dallas. We will borrow good ideas, of course. I'm a best practices kind of guy. Like MIT and the other great technical institutes, we will be committed to cutting-edge research in science, technology, engineering and math. In other words, the STEM disciplines.
We will take full advantage of being a part of the extraordinary University of Texas System. Like our sister academic campuses, we will offer the citizens of Texas and the world a first rate education in a wide range of disciplines. Working with our sister medical schools, we will conduct research in fields that impact human health and well being. Our classes will be filled with bright, hardworking students. Our teachers will be as bright and hardworking as our students. Our outstanding staff will help make that vision of our future a reality.
And we will welcome a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints at UT Dallas and treat one another with respect. Our student body will grow more reflective of the diversity of Texas, and our faculty and staff will grow more reflective of the diversity of our student body. We will enroll students from across the United States and the world. We will grow in global awareness from our exposure to culturally rich places.
We will equally prepare the young man from Germany to take a job in Plano as we will prepare the young woman in Plano to take a job in Germany. Borrowing from trailblazing institutions like Virginia Tech and Penn State, we will position ourselves on the uncomfortable leading edge of pedagogical technology. We will be early adopters of new forms of communications that enhance the teaching and learning experience and that allow us to reach many new and nontraditional students.
Like our entrepreneurial friends in Silicon Valley, Austin, and Boston, we will be part-and-parcel of the dynamic growth of our region. Here in Richardson, Texas, we are in an enviable position to work collaboratively with our neighbors to make the Metroplex an ever-popular destination for inventors, artists, innovators and risk-takers.
We will keep our alumni close to UT Dallas. It has often been noted that we do not have a football team. Here's something else we don't have, an old guard. Our first freshmen walked this campus a mere 26 years ago. What we have is a relatively young and passionate alumni body, some who have seen UTD through the whole of its evolution. With new venues like the Davidson Gundy Alumni Center, we will keep our Comet families connected to this evolving impactful university. Thank you, Chuck and Nancy Davidson, for that.
We will put an A into STEM and make UT Dallas a STEAM University. In our midst are numerous students who take joy from music, art, dance and theater. Others have a passion for history, aesthetics and great literature. Maybe they are pursuing majors in the School of Arts and Humanities, or the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication, but it is more likely they are pursuing majors in the Naveen Jindal School of Management, the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, or the School of Interdisciplinary Studies.
Regardless of their majors, our students are not one-dimensional, and we will create new venues for the broadly talented men and women who will choose UT Dallas because of an opportunity to gain an in-demand degree, all the while having an opportunity to give expression to the creativity.
One of my favorite Big-Band leaders, Glenn Miller, once said, “A band ought to have a sound all on its own and have a personality.” Thanks to President Jordan, a musicologist by the way, and presidents Rutford, Jenifer and Daniel, UT Dallas most definitely has a sound all of its own, and we will continue to build upon that distinctive personality.
For my final observation, I would like to turn again to the founders, but this time I'm not just referring to McDermott, Green and Jonsson. As I look back on my own education, I reflect that I received my bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from universities that were established in 1746, 1819 and 1868, respectively. All great universities and all well-defined by the time I walked their campuses. It is safe to say each was little changed when I stopped walking their campuses. UT Dallas is different, however. Very different. As a university, we are younger than many of the faculty and staff members who work here. We're even younger than some of our students. Our oldest is 84. What this means is that the founding of UT Dallas was not just one brilliant act of creation in the 1960s, and nor is it complete. We are still giving shape to this superb university, defining purpose and creating traditions that will last for 100 years and more. Put simply, you are founders. And it is the greatest honor of my career to have been invited onto this team. So together we will direct the comet-like arc of our success. And so my fellow UT Dallas founders, let's have at it! Let's have some fun! Whoosh!