Office of the President

Embracing and Leading Change

Graduation, Fall 2012

Parents, family members, and friends of our assembled honorees, in a few minutes, the men and women of the hour, our graduates, will take the stage to celebrate a milestone. We applaud their achievements and offer heart-felt congratulations.

If you are among the many thousands of people watching remotely via the world-wide web, we are glad you joined us wherever you might be. Only a few years ago, observing a ceremony such as this required being physically present. Not any more. In fact, you don’t have to be here to talk with those who are assembled today, assuming you consider text messaging to be a form of talking. I can envision family members back home or at one of our overseas military installations watching the ceremony right now and communicating with you in real time. Perhaps the only thing missing for members of our cyber audience are hugs and kisses, but even those can be expressed with text symbols.

Technological advancements have not only changed access to events such as this, but also have begun to change the way we teach in our universities—so much so that some observers now question the need for brick-and-mortar infrastructure on campuses. Some say that the traditional campus will become obsolete and that students will gain knowledge not in lecture halls or classrooms, but rather via smartphones and tablets wherever they happen to be, whenever they like.

Technologically driven changes in universities are not new. Years ago, universities such as UT Dallas began delivering some courses via broadcast television. Many universities delivered continuing education programs by mailing out videotapes of lectures. And internet delivery of course content has been around for at least 20 years.

I think that what is really transforming educational possibilities for colleges and universities today is the far-reaching adoption of social media and new forms of communication such as text messaging. There now exist massively interconnected groups of people who are as comfortable with social media tools as they are in one-on-one communication or group discussion.

“The path to a job and successful career isn’t only about stuffing one's brain with more knowledge. It’s also about developing the whole individual.”

For the first time, students can now communicate with their classmates, teachers and teaching assistants anywhere in the world, instantaneously and in a manner that is as comfortable (or maybe even more comfortable) to students and teachers as face-to-face meeting. This idea—that the very best teachers have a nearly infinite capacity to communicate with and inspire an essentially limitless number of students—is so seductive in terms of the scalability, convenience, and potential for cost reduction that questions arise regarding the value of and need for the traditional brick-and-mortar campus. These questions are valid and deserve thoughtful consideration.

Let me tell you why I think that brick and mortar are here to stay at research universities such as UT Dallas. There are two fundamental reasons.

First, research universities not only teach in classrooms, but they also instruct through research. Much of the research that we conduct at universities involves laboratories, equipment and experiments that test hypotheses or explore the unknown. Some research can be performed on-line, such as literature or database searches, especially as archived information becomes digitized and available. But real equipment in real buildings is needed to build prototype computer chips, test more efficient automobile engines, develop biofuels as an alternative to gasoline, test new technology for hearing aids or noise cancellation algorithms, invent improved prosthetic devices, measure brain performance, or explore potential cures for cancer, to name only a few examples. In many areas of medicine, science and engineering, there simply is no substitute for experimentation as a fundamental element of discovery and innovation. And that experimentation involves buildings, laboratories, people, and sophisticated equipment.

You may wonder why research is so important, especially for undergraduate students. Let me explain with an example.

Suppose that you are a college student and you have a passion for more efficient, lightweight batteries to power automobiles. You think that if such batteries can be developed, it will transform the automobile industry, and you want to be part of that transformation. Your goals are first to get a quality education, then to land an empowering job in the automobile industry, and finally, to change the world. To reach your goals, would you rather attend a purely teaching college either in a traditional or online university, or would you rather attend a research university that will teach you everything you can learn in a traditional classroom, and also afford you the opportunity to work with faculty members and students who are leading the research and discovery process for the next generation of automobile batteries?

Students attending research universities learn not only what the current edition of the text book says, but also what the next edition of the book is going to say.

If you are an employer, whom would you rather hire: someone with just book-smarts (or maybe I should say cyber-smarts), or someone with all this knowledge and experience in the discovery process that the research university affords?

To answer this question, just talk with the HR director of any major medical or technology company. These companies hire primarily from the nation’s leading research universities. Why? Because students from great research universities not only possess core knowledge, but they also understand through actual experience how to discover and to innovate.

“I have no doubt that years from now we’ll still be constructing new buildings. I have no question that a tremendous amount of research and discovery will be taking place in these buildings. I am certain that this research will add priceless value to a student’s experience and potential.”

A second reason why brick and mortar are here to stay is that students often learn as much outside the classroom as inside. Employers tell us repeatedly and emphatically that they want a graduate who is not only knowledgeable, but also one who is well rounded, has excellent communication skills, can work with others and within teams, and who has leadership potential. The path to a job and successful career isn’t only about stuffing one’s brain with more knowledge. It’s also about developing the whole individual. The traditional brick-and-mortar campus offers myriad out-of-classroom experiences, from athletics to clubs, where students develop into that whole person.

I do think online learning is transforming the University in several valuable ways.

  • Libraries have changed. Rows and rows of books are no longer as important as they used to be. UT Dallas has just one library building, and it may never need a second. What we do need is more group study space where students can work and learn together. This is the kind of place our library has become.
  • More and more courses are being taught online in a blended manner, meaning that the student can attend the lecture live or online, whichever they prefer. This is changing the method of instruction. For instance, a lecture may be delivered online, with classroom time reserved for discussion or problem solving.
  • There is a huge post-baccalaureate market for online courses for those who seek specialized knowledge for career advancement. This type of student, who has already earned at least one college degree, is experienced and does not need further socialization — just specialized knowledge and skills.
  • I also think that there is a market for undergraduate students who will either earn their baccalaureate degree online, or they’ll never earn any degree at all. For example, some students may be place- and time-bound because they’re raising children or must work full time. These are important educational needs that online education may be best suited to meet.

UT Dallas is home to one of the nation's most creative and dynamic groups of innovators who are defining the future of technology-enabled learning. Our Arts and Technology Program, or ATEC, specializes in what it calls "serious gaming" and educational software and simulation tools. The development of these tools represents a major research and development investment and is but one example of how UT Dallas fearlessly explores change and disruptive innovation.

To summarize, I have no doubt that years from now we'll still be constructing new buildings. I have no question that a tremendous amount of research and discovery will be taking place in these buildings. I am certain that this research will add priceless value to a student's experience and potential. And I'm certain that years from now our students will be engaged far more extensively in what we today call online learning, probably using advances invented at UT Dallas.

As soon-to-be alumni, what does this mean for you? You can expect your university to embrace and lead change. You can expect that our core value of “quality first” will endure and take on new forms and shapes in the years ahead. And you might expect to see a logo titled “Powered by UT Dallas ATEC” displayed on the educational platform that you’re using.

Finally, let’s remember what we’re really here for today: you, our graduates. Your accomplishments have brought you here to mark one of the most important achievements that you will ever experience. The credential that your diploma represents is something that will remain with you no matter where you go and that will serve you in all you do. Enjoy this day, graduates of 2012.

Congratulations and good luck!

Updated: December 7, 2012