When President Jennifer Cowley first began her role last April, the first fall semester was about meeting every student to hear about the institution’s problems, and then the spring focused on addressing those issues.
Now going into the second year of her tenure, Cowley said it’s about realizing those actions.
A lot has happened since April 28, 2022, Cowley’s first official day at UTA. The School of Social Work and Smart Hospital had its ribbon cutting opening ceremony, students participated in a project to redesign Cooper Street bridges and Cowley is attending the 88th Legislative Session as a university president.
To reflect on her first year, Cowley speaks with Dang Le, The Shorthorn editor-in-chief, about the new things she has learned from her tenure, her mission to create a community within the university and her short-term goals and long-term plans for UTA.
These answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
DL: How does it feel to be with UTA for a year?
JC: It’s crazy how fast the year went, it didn't feel like it's been 12 months. But it feels wonderful to feel like I'm really settled in at home now and that I've got this very welcoming campus community and the community at large that make it feel like I'm making an impact and being able to contribute to the success of our students, our faculty and staff and our communities.
DL: So when you visited the school, of course, you had an idea of what UTA is like and what the population is like. But now that you're in the position, what are some things you didn't know that were there in the first place?
JC: Well, every week, I try to visit something new on campus that I haven't seen before to know better what's happening in our community. And it was pretty early that I visited one of our centers, and I was just blown away. I had no idea we would have one of the world's largest lizard lending libraries, our Center for Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center, that have all of these collections of lizards and frogs and other things that people just write to us from all over the world and say, “Can I borrow this?” And we send them the frog, and then they can go do their research on it. Just finding things that are so special and unique that we're contributing to global knowledge has just been one of the fun parts of my work every day.
DL: If people look at your Twitter, you've been traveling around campus and been to all of these different student organization events. Why is it important for you to do that?
JC: Well, I serve as a representative of the university. You're a journalist, I'm a chief storyteller. Part of my job is to tell the story of UTA to the broader community. Much of my job is external to the university. So, when I'm out and about in Austin talking to legislators or at a community event, I need to be able to talk about the great work that we're doing here. And I can't know about our great work and the needs of our students, faculty and staff if I'm not regularly interacting with them.
DL: When you're out to those events, how much of those conversations with students help you figure out what we need to do at UTA moving forward?
JC: Sometimes, I get the opportunity to tell the story of an individual student and their experience, and that's really helpful because people connect with stories. So, being able to have those unique stories of our students and the work that they're doing, for example, our new Smart Hospital, and hearing from a student about what that learning environment means to them makes it much easier for me to talk to our community as a whole. But then, on the flip side, hearing directly from our students, faculty and staff about what they most need to succeed is super important. Just earlier today, we were talking about the university's budget. Hearing from all of these stakeholders about what's important makes it much easier to begin to prioritize and say, “You know, these are things that we can agree are the most important that we bring focus to.”
DL: I want to circle back to the Smart Hospital. When you started your tenure, the building was in the final stage of completion. What is it like to see that building finalize and become a big support for nursing and social work students?
JC: Well, it is always wonderful for me to see something we have hoped and dreamed about come to life. Our social workers were in the oldest building on our campus, and they needed more modern space. To be able to see those social workers get to move into our new building is amazing. To see how we were able to change our hospital and make it an even more of a cutting-edge learning environment for our students, it's just extraordinary. So the fun part is, of course, coming in at the tail end of seeing this big success and now planning for the next things that will come, such as the renovation and expansion of our Life Sciences building, the construction of a new Greek Life Center, the construction of a new residence hall, those are all things that I get to be on the ground floor of and will help come to life in the coming years.
DL: As someone with a CAPPA background, do you get to nerd out a little bit over all the new buildings being built?
JC: (laughs) Yes, yes! Well, I do get to nerd out in seeing the possibility. For example, the design competition we ran with CAPPA for the bridges was a personal passion project for me. Coming into the campus for the first time, I said, “Gosh, these bridges could be something more than they are today.” And then to be able to walk through that process and see our students' ideas and work with the design firm to get to that next step of something implementable — that, to me, is really a lot of fun in the job.
DL: When you go through that list earlier, it just sounds a lot. Do you get tired or overwhelmed for a little bit?
JC: Well, I'll say I definitely get my steps in every day, moving around the campus. We're a small city here. If you think about how many people are on campus on any given day, the number of buildings, the transportation, the Athletic events and all the great things on our campus. I don't feel overwhelmed because I have a wonderful staff who can keep me organized and make sure I'm prepared and know everything I need to do on the day. But I'll admit every now and then, when we get to the end of the week, I'm like, “Ooh, I need to catch my breath,” and say, “I need some time to think about what we need to be doing next.”
DL: Of all the upcoming projects, what are some of the most exciting ones that we can think of?
JC: You're asking me which one is my favorite student (laughs), I can’t answer that. But what I can say is there are elements about each project that get me really excited. For example, our Life Sciences building, right now, students are sitting in hallways, and there's not enough informal learning space for students. When we do that renovation and expansion, there's going to be all kinds of informal learning spaces for our students to gather and study before class and meet with colleagues to collaborate. In addition to having modern labs and all the other important things, seeing that space for our students brings me great happiness. Our Greek Life Center has 20 chapters of fraternities and sororities that don't have a house, so to have a space that can support them and those already on Greek Row Drive is going to have such an important impact on those students to have a place that can consider their own that they can hold their chapter meetings and have a barbecue and just enjoy each other's fellowship. That, to me, is like, “OK, that's about community building. That's a really exciting project for me.”
DL: Among the list you released on the exact date of your first anniversary, there’s also the relocation of the Office for Cultural Engagement and Social Change within the University Center.
JC: That's an idea that emerged from our students. The Office of Cultural Engagement and Social Change is one that many students would love to engage with but don't have as much awareness of. So when we looked at the uses of the building and what we might move around, there was a time that students would always have to go to our student ID office. Well, now you can upload your picture online, and it just doesn't require the same level of student engagement as in the past. And so we said, “Well, let's move that use out of the basement, up to the first floor, and we'll swap it, and the ID office can go into the basement.” That way, when new students come, we can send them directly to that office. And if they need to follow up because they lost an ID, they can go there. But they don't need that same level of interaction as this office. So we just said, let's make the swap. Over the summer, they're going to make that happen, and that's an example of where the voice of our students saying, “Hey, we want something that's more visible and accessible,” and we were able to make that happen.
DL: It seems like a lot of these changes have a lot to do with students creating and building a community. Is that one of your priorities when coming as the president?
JC: Absolutely, it's why one of our themes is centered around community engagement. So, for example, our students engage in service learning projects with community organizations within our campus and make sure that every student feels like they have a community that's theirs, that group of friends and colleagues that they feel like they can connect with. So whether it is around a club or activity they're engaged in within their major, their residence hall or whatever it might be, we're creating the right environments for students to feel like they’re welcomed and they belong at UTA.
DL: In what ways did you get to listen to opinions from students or talk to them?
JC: Yeah, we have many different ways that I engage with our students. One of them is to host a dinner with student leaders from across the campus to exchange ideas and discuss topics important to our students and changes they'd like to see for our campus. Another is the regular Cookies with Cowley, which allows our student body to engage with us. And then, of course, regular meetings with our student government leaders and different groups of communities across our campus.
DL: Is it difficult to be the center of attention and get all of these questions from student leaders?
JC: Well, being the president is a job that you're the center of conversations a lot, so it's something that you just get prepared to do. What I love about those roundtables is the opportunity to hear directly from our student leaders and to be able to have a very frank and open dialogue about the issues that matter most to our students, to be able to talk about their experiences, both wonderful and those where we could improve, and to learn what our students are most passionate about.
DL: During the whole presidency, I’ve noticed that you've been sending a lot of emails and showing a lot of communication through in-person or on your website. Is that a way to show transparency to student leaders?
JC: Absolutely. One of the values that I shared with my team early on is that we're going to be as transparent as possible to share with our community what's going on and to be able to make sure that we're listening to them as we're making and developing our plans. For me, transparency in communications is just one way to show that. As I've worked with Student Government leaders, transitioning from our last leaders to our new ones, we talked about where we were on different resolutions and what we could do to partner together around priorities for the coming year. That kind of back-and-forth level of engagement and being open about whenever we’ve hit a stumbling block on this issue or we've made great progress, it just creates trust. And when you create trust, it makes it a whole lot easier to accomplish things together.
DL: Now that you've mentioned the resolutions, of course, like the past year, I think we've talked about a couple that's been passed, such as football, and I think the new Student Body president has said in one of the articles that her priority is expanding the UC as well.
JC: We talked about those two issues, specifically, and several others in our meeting earlier today. When it comes to the University Center, I was really curious to understand why the students voted it down last year right before I arrived and what needs to be different. As I listened to our students throughout the year, the No. 1 thing I heard is they want more space to support student activities, and they see the University Center as their home base, if you will, for all these student-facing activities. And we talked about, “Well, should we consider a separate center of a smaller kind, or what are all of the options that we might consider?” and it just kept coming back that students really felt like the University Center is where we needed to focus our attention. So the feedback was maybe we can do more to educate our students to understand what the proposal is about and to make sure it really reflects what our students are most interested in. And so I felt that we should spend next year having those conversations again, take it to a student vote and let's see what happens.
DL: So, how about football?
JC: The resolution, to be clear, was football and women's sports, so I want to talk a little bit about the enablers needed to consider football. Title IX requires that there be a sufficient number of women's sports seats, so the very first thing we need to do is to ask what it takes to expand our women's sports. So I've asked the Athletics director to evaluate some women's sports and come forward with recommendations around what we might do there. The second piece of the puzzle is that we have significant infrastructure needs to enable the consideration of football. Third, I've made it very clear to our student leaders that the cost of football is very high, and a student fee would only pay a portion. So if we support football, we need to figure out where the rest of the money will come from. And it will probably mean that we need a very significant donor to step forward or multiple donors to step forward to support all of the expenses associated with starting a football team. The other thing I just told our Student Government leaders is that we need strong support from our students for our existing programs. The last thing I want to do is build a football team that nobody goes and supports, so we need to be able to demonstrate that our students care about athletics and support our existing basketball teams and women's volleyball teams and our tennis teams. As you probably saw, our men's tennis team just won the WAC championship.
DL: I actually covered tennis, so it was cool to watch the men win the championship.
JC: I was so excited that the tournament was right here in Arlington. And so we were able to have local folks out supporting the team. So I'm so glad you got to see them.
DL: Back a little bit to your conversations with students about football. Throughout your year here, there have been a lot of issues that students care about that caused protests and a lot of opinions. I feel like every time that they do that, their first instinct is to call your office. What are the conversations with those students like so they can understand your perspectives?
JC: I'd say there's multiple pieces. I’m not the only person students should be talking to in the organization. In fact, many things they may want, the conversations are best had at a local unit level. For example, your adviser at The Shorthorn, if you want to see a change, the best place to go is to start there and then work with Student Affairs leadership and others. But of course, some topics do rise to be a universitywide kind of conversation, so I tried to make sure that on my schedule, I have regular interactions with students throughout the semester to make sure that I can have a one-on-one conversation to hear the issues that are most present to them. And I think you were at our last roundtable, where we talked about football. And while we had an adamant supporter of football, another person was concerned about the turnout at that election. I love hearing those divergent perspectives to be able to say, “OK, what other questions should we be asking to make sure that we're doing the right thing by our students?”
DL: At the last meeting with student leaders, a large chunk of that meeting was spent talking about your current effort at the legislative session. What is it like to finally come to the legislative session as a university president?
JC: It's really wonderful to work with our legislators and understand the most important issues to them. Each legislator represents a different district, and every district has different priorities and concerns. Chris Turner, who happens to represent UTA, has been wonderful to sit down with and talk to about a range of issues, and he wants to do everything he can to support UTA. It has been really wonderful to build those relationships and understand the perspectives of different legislators. It's also been very interesting as a first-year president to have a session with many different higher education issues. I'm so grateful to our government affairs team for ensuring that we're monitoring legislation and briefing me on what I need to know so I can be effective when meeting with our legislators.
DL: What are some of the issues that take up most of your time when you're over there?
JC: UTA and universities across the state have put forward an affordability plan and our request the state to provide sufficient funding, so we wouldn’t need to raise tuition and fees for two years. We know how important the cost of college is to students and what an impact being able to hold tuition and fees flat would mean.
DL: So, what are some of the most valuable lessons that you've learned in your first year?
JC: First is patience, and that can be hard for me sometimes because I'm very action-oriented, and sometimes, we have to take our time and say, “OK, let's really be thoughtful and reflective and understand the steps and what it will take to actually do this well.” For me, it's trusting the team to say, “You're on this, and you're gonna give me regular updates on our progress.” And then to see a really great outcome at the end, that's really satisfying to see that we can do that together. The second thing is just keeping everything organized because I touch every aspect of the university, so I take careful notes to be able to put a little asterisk next to things that require follow-up by the end of the day. I may have had 12 to 14 meetings during the day, so it's hard to remember what I was supposed to do from the second meeting. The third lesson centers around pride — spreading pride in our university, taking pride in the current good work and making sure to take time to reflect on all that we're accomplishing because it can be so easy to jump into “OK, what do we need to do next? What do we need to solve by taking that moment to be reflective to celebrate the accomplishments that we've achieved?”
DL: What is the most number of meetings you've had in a day?
JC: Maybe 16 to 20, in that range.
DL: So, how does that day start? Like, what time does it start? And what time does it end?
JC: Well… so I'll just use today as an example. Let's just count. (Grabs her phone) So today, I had my first meeting at 7 a.m. I have nine meetings today, and I will end at 7 p.m.
Tasted so many wonderful flavors at the UTA International Food Fair. Today until 2.— Jennifer Cowley (@@UTAPrezCowley) April 4, 2023
DL: Did you expect to be that busy when you first started?
JC: Well, you certainly know, there are periods where they're sprints. Now is one of those sprint periods between spring break and graduation. There are celebrations all the time. So tonight, I have a celebration of our Faculty Senate’s 50th anniversary, which is wonderful to celebrate. So you just know that you're going to have this period where you have all this extra activity to support our student-athletes, our Faculty Senate or all the other things leading up to graduation. Then once you graduate, the students disappear for a few weeks. It's like an opportunity to catch your breath and focus on strategic planning and the important work we have to queue up for what comes next. And then summer school starts. And then we start all over again with all of those wonderful activities. And so it is just like any job, you have a rhythm to it. And there's peaks and valleys in terms of the activity demands.
DL: So, the first time we met, you said your goal was to meet with students. Then in December, it was about turning those goals into action. What is the next move for you going into your second year?
JC: We're in the midst of our strategic plan, writing and goal setting as we speak. The fun part is taking all this input that we've received from across our campus community and translating that into actions. Then looking at our budget process and aligning the resources to help advance a number of those goals that we're putting down on paper. Year two is about turning those actions into reality, whether implementing a new program or supporting a new major on campus or whatever it might be.
DL: So what are the short-term plans and long-term goals for you moving forward?
JC: In terms of academic innovation, we've got several fun new academic programs in the pipeline. And so I'll just share one is a fermentation science certificate. So basically, how to be a brewmaster. We've got our new energy and resource engineering degree starting this fall and a whole number of programs that I can't talk about that are in the approval queue to become majors. And so that is really fun and exciting to see new offerings available to our students. In the research space, we're hiring a cluster of brain experts and purchasing equipment to help support those researchers because we want to work to solve issues like dementia and concussion prevention and a whole host of other disorders that impact our brain.
DL: We've talked about traveling, we've talked about a lot of meetings and all of that. What has motivated you to be in your current role?
JC: It's definitely seeing the impact that we can have on our students, whether going to a symphony performance of our students and seeing them get to play and display their musical talent or going to an art gallery exhibition or to a poster session for math students, I mean, you can just go down the list and it's like, "Wow, I see how much our students are growing in their time at UTA," and then watch the graduation stage. That's what keeps you motivated.
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