The University of Texas System’s Board of Regents unanimously voted to name Jay Hartzell president of UT on Sept. 23. Hartzell, who spent most of the past 25 years at UT as a graduate student, professor and dean of the McCombs School of Business, had been serving as interim president since June. Texas Connect publishers Cindy Posey and Gerald Johnson and writer Avrel Seale met with him just days after the regents’ vote to talk about the challenges of taking on this role in such a tumultuous time, his hopes for the university and more. Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.
How has UT, from your perspective, changed in the years that you’ve been here?
I think in many ways UT has mirrored the changes in Austin.Just like Austin is now more central in the national and international conversations as one of the leading cities, I think UT has risen in, at least, brand and reputation. I do think we’ve always been, at least since I’ve been here, an excellent university. So I’m not sure if the kind of sheer scholarly output has changed that much. But it feels to me like we’re more in the mindset of people nationally than we used to be. I think there’s still work to do there. That’s something I’d like to work on. But I think as Austin has gotten more hip and famous, or at least famous for being hip, I think UT has benefited as well. It feels like it’s easier to recruit students and faculty here than it used to be because they think of us as more of a preferred destination than perhaps they used to.
If someone had told you, as a young professor, that you were going to be president of the university, what would you have thought?
I think it was not at all on my radar. Coming back here, as an assistant professor, coming from NYU, I was really worried about giving up that job, coming here untenured, to a place I really wanted to stay. I was worried about living up to that opportunity.
I never thought I could end up back here. You don’t tend to get to go where your Ph.D. is from. When UT called, it was a chance to go to the place you dream of going.
I missed being on a campus. Part of what is cool about being a professor is you walk around the campus. You’re around young people. You’ve got everything from the sports to the fine arts to the, just the feel of the place. I loved teaching finance at NYU, and it was a great place to do research. But it didn’t feel to me like being a professor the same way it feels like being a professor here.
No other president any of us can remember has taken office in a tumultuous time like this. What were those very first days as interim like?
One part that I continue to be very grateful for is all the time that Greg Fenves took with me to get me prepped. We had a bunch of hourlong conversations, topic by topic. He spent a lot of time in particular around things like Dell Med and UT Health Austin, athletics, and kind of the political landscape.
My mentality in those early days was just what’s the next meeting? What’s the next problem? Can we make any progress on it? OK, move that aside. Next. We started as the summer went on to be able to look up at the horizon a little more and figure out where we’re aiming.
Another big chunk of my time early was just getting to know the team. There were a lot of people I knew from meetings a little, I knew by name, I knew by email, but I hadn’t spent much time with them. And they were tremendous as well.
What things are you most excited about?
When I was dean, we had Eddie Reese, the amazing swimming coach, come speak. He said something I liked, which was that there are no great places, there are great people. What makes UT Austin special is the people, and so I’m excited just to get to meet even more amazing people. And those are faculty, staff, students and alums.
I had a week as interim where I talked to Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, Brené Brown and Rex Tillerson. That’s a pretty good week.
I’m looking forward, once we get past COVID, to getting back to a full football stadium, walking through campus when it’s really buzzing again, seeing a full room of faculty where we’re all able to shake hands and maybe hug a little. Those kinds of things I’m looking forward to a lot.
Given your experience in various roles at UT, is there a specific area or change that you see as an opportunity to improve culture and connectedness?
Something I’m interested in embarking on over the next year is to have some more conversations among our community about our core values and what we think it means to be a Longhorn at every level — faculty, staff, students, alums. I think there’s something to our culture that’s truly special, but I’m not sure we’ve always taken the time to pause and articulate it. I think if we take a little bit of time to think through it, to talk about it together and to listen to each other, it may help us find and enjoy what we have in common, may help us when we recruit people and may help us retain people.
I thought about it with all of the controversy over the summer, the concerns over racial injustice, for example. I think we should have a place where we are comfortable saying we want to be an inclusive, welcoming environment for all people. That should be a value of ours. And I think it is, but should we say it more? Should we talk about it more? Should we listen to each other more about it? I’m also worried about with all the polarization going on, let’s focus on what we have in common. Let’s talk about our shared future as a university. For me, that has a lot of optimism built into it, all the great things we can do together, rather than worrying about the things that we have that differentiate us.
Where do you see UT in five years?
I think we have incredible fundamentals. We’re in Texas, which is a great benefit, the way that people are moving here, they want to live here. It’s a talented, diverse, large state. Depending on whom you ask, we’re in the best city in the state, where people really want to live and come to school or come to work. We’ve got this incredible alumni base. And then you think about all the trends in the U.S. around technology, innovation, AI and machine learning, data, all those things. UT is really strong in all those fields. All those feel to me like tailwinds that we can take advantage of.
A lot of what’s up to us is, when we’re going after a professor, or a student, and we want them to come, do they pick us or do they pick another school? I think five years from now, we’re going to win even more of those battles over faculty talent, staff talent and student talent. More people are going to turn down Michigan and Berkeley and Duke and pick us five years from now than they did in the last five years.