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Undergraduate Studies Remembers Bill Powers

William Powers led a long and impressive career at The University of Texas at Austin, starting as a member of the UT law faculty in 1977. In 1997 he was recognized for outstanding teaching by being inducted into the prestigious Academy of Distinguished Teachers. He served as dean of the School of Law, and then as president of the university from 2006 until 2015. His list of accomplishments is extensive, from leading a successful capital campaign that raised $3 billion dollars for the university, to making major infrastructure changes to campus with the construction of new buildings, to promoting diversity as a factor in admissions decisions, and helping establish Dell Medical School.

For Dean Brent Iverson and staff in the School of Undergraduate Studies, Powers’ role as the founding force who built a home for ongoing curricular reform, exceptional academic programs, and a supportive starting point for undecided students will be the legacy that matters most. The School of Undergraduate Studies is thriving today because of Powers’ vision and steadfast commitment.

After the Commission of 125 made sweeping recommendations in 2004 on how to create a “disciplined culture of excellence” and improve undergraduate education, Powers led the university through a curriculum overhaul, convincing faculty across campus to work together to change what they do in the classroom. This was a vast undertaking, one that Powers’ skills as a leader made possible. He introduced Signature Courses, which provide educational breadth and transferrable skills like good writing and public speaking, as a new degree requirement and part of the push, as the Commission put it, to “have a curriculum that ensures that our graduates have learned to think, to write, and to discover.” The reform also gave birth to the Skills & Experience Flags, degree requirements in areas like ethics and quantitative reasoning that enrich a broad UT education.

Powers created the School of Undergraduate Studies to oversee that transformation and to ensure continued focus of the university’s energy and resources on undergraduates. Dean Iverson notes that fundamental core curriculum reform of the type achieved at UT is unprecedented at a large university. Adding Signature Courses and Flags was an ambitious goal, he says, but one that has proven successful. There are now over 99,000 students who have taken a Signature Course in the last 10 years. And since 2009, a million seats have been taken in classes that carry a Flag. “Thanks to Bill, our students now experience a significantly broader education, exactly as demanded by the Commission of 125,” said Iverson.

Powers consistently taught his own Signature Course, introducing freshmen to the university year after year. He contributed in countless ways to the school, connecting with thousands of students and working to continually better the Longhorn experience. He led an annual Reading Round-Up session, discussing Oedipus Rex with a small group of incoming first-year students. He maintained it was always insightful and one of his favorite ways to start the fall semester.

In 2017 Powers offered a talk called “Turning Points” to an auditorium full of undergraduates as part of the school’s University Lecture Series. He refuted the stereotypes about millennials and told them: “You care about each other, you care about your communities…You all actually go out and roll up your sleeves and go tutor people, or go clean up the environment….I think it’s a great generation. It gives people at my age tremendous hope that there’s going to be a good future for the country and for the state and for the world.”

As dean of Undergraduate Studies, Iverson said he feels responsible for continuing to realize Powers’ vision, and for remembering how important the school’s mission is to students. “He was a truly great leader, but above all else, Bill was a gifted and genuine teacher. He was my dear friend. He inspired me from the first day we met, and he continues to inspire me,” said Iverson.

Bill Powers speaking at the fall 2017 University Lecture Series