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Benson Highlights Progress, Challenges in State of the University Address

In his annual State of the University address, University of Texas at Dallas President Richard C. Benson said that as the University has responded to the “staggering” events of 2020, it also has kept a focus on its mission to be one of the nation’s best public research universities.

Benson, who holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership, commended students, staff and faculty for their flexibility and caring during the COVID-19 pandemic, which he called the greatest crisis that universities have faced in over a century.

“In the spirit of one community, we modified our operations and remained focused on how to best teach and conduct research while taking care of one another,” Benson said.

He also noted the recent societal upheavals around topics such as diversity, equity and inclusion, particularly highlighting the recommendations from UT Dallas’ Living Our Values Task Force, a group that was established in the spring.

“In the spirit of one community, we modified our operations and remained focused on how to best teach and conduct research while taking care of one another.”

President Richard C. Benson, Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership

Even while discussing the challenges of the year, Benson highlighted a number of positive trends for the University. Most notably, the 2021 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings placed UT Dallas among the best in the country for overall quality (65th among public universities), high value (third among Texas public universities), low student debt (55th) and ethnic diversity (top 30).

Progress Toward Quantitative Targets

In his review of the University’s Strategic Plan, Benson pointed to the success of two particular goals: federal research expenditures and the University’s endowment.

For academic year 2020, federal research expenditures at UT Dallas reached $56 million, which is close to the 2023 goal of $60 million. Benson cited the statistic as evidence of the University’s ascendancy to a position among the top U.S. research institutions.

“This is the brightest spot of our strategic objectives,” said Benson. “It is a very challenging arena. We are competing with the very best universities in the nation. It’s to our great achievement that we are succeeding to an ever-increasing extent.”

He also cited the growth of the University’s endowment. As of the last academic year, UT Dallas has secured approximately $524 million for its endowment, which is used to support various faculty positions, student scholarships, programs and research activities. With a capital campaign expected to launch soon, Benson said he expects to exceed the goal of $750 million by 2023.

Benson was candid that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended some of the goals included in UT Dallas’ Strategic Plan. He particularly noted the reduction in the number of graduate students, which, he said, was primarily the result of potential students being unable to come to UT Dallas because of travel restrictions, visa issues or immigration concerns.

Also, according to Benson, the number of tenure-system faculty at UT Dallas probably will not reach the 2023 goal, due in large part to COVID-19 issues. Academic year 2021 started with 568 tenure-system faculty; the aim is 710 by 2023.

Looking Ahead

Even as the University adapted for the pandemic, Benson said significant progress was made on planned improvements on campus, particularly those that support UT Dallas’ teaching and research missions. He particularly noted that $90 million has been secured for construction of a UT Dallas/UT Southwestern Translational Biomedical Engineering and Science Building, which will be located on the UT Southwestern Medical Center campus as part of the University’s expanding presence in the Southwestern Medical District.

Additional Highlights

Dr. Ravi Prakash is the speaker of the faculty of the Academic Senate and a professor of computer science in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. He provided a message on how the UT Dallas community can serve as an example of scholarship and civility.

Finance and economics senior Sara Brennan is the new president of Student Government. She highlighted how students and the University have adapted to learning and teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also reviewed goals Student Government has set going forward.

Brooke Schafer is the immediate past president of Staff Council. She discussed how staff have stepped up and helped maintain operations during unprecedented times.

For a breakdown of the University’s quantitative targets, watch this video.

Benson said the near-term challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are significant. It has resulted in universities across the state – including UT Dallas – incurring unexpected expenses and losing important revenue. Even after significant budget reductions and reallocations, UT Dallas revenue for the 2021 academic year is $35.4 million below pre-COVID expectations. Another challenge for the University is the forecasted budget shortfall that the Texas legislature must work through and the implications for the University’s funding.

Benson said he hopes donors will step up to assist UT Dallas in reaching its research and academic goals.

“We are committed to an ideal that education can make a difference by bringing students and faculty together in a manner that expands and develops the students’ full potential. Faculty also benefit in this exchange of ideas with bright scholars,” he said. “To support this ideal, we must be looking to our supporters to invest in us through a comprehensive fundraising campaign. Contributions will help us attract talented faculty, staff and students, to advance research and to enrich the arts.”

Benson concluded his message by thanking the UT Dallas community for its courage during the challenging COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have faced some extremely difficult days, but we have persevered. Classes have continued, education has progressed, and we have collectively done what was needed to fight and endure, despite the challenges,” he said. “I have watched with immense pride as you have responded to the crucial needs of our community. You have not only upheld our great purpose as a university, but also demonstrated immense compassion for each other.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu.

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