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April 6, 2023

Arts and Sciences Interim Dean José Luis Bermúdez delivered the following remarks during his 2023 State of the College address.

Thank you all for coming today. It is wonderful to see so many people here — with others connecting remotely — faculty, staff and former students.

I want to start by thanking you all for your patience and hard work since President Banks announced the creation of the new College of Arts and Sciences. I know that it has been a difficult journey. And this isn’t surprising. There have been few larger undertakings in the history of higher education in this country. Three proudly independent colleges in what is now the largest public university in the country have come together to form a single College of Arts and Sciences, a College that is larger than most American universities.

A few numbers will help communicate the scale of the undertaking. We have 19,073 students, who are taught by 868 faculty. The college is supported by more than 700 staff, of whom over 200 support the research enterprise. The college’s annual expenditures are just under $300M, of which more than 1/3 are research expenditures. We have an endowment of $190M. Our physical footprint is over 2M square feet.

The scale is incredible, and so I understand why many of you feel disoriented by the speed and the scope of the changes that we have gone through. I sympathize, and I appreciate the extraordinary amount of commitment and dedication that has gone into creating Arts and Sciences. Many people have put in long hours in trying circumstances. I must admit that on more than one occasion, I wondered whether it was going to be possible to make this work, but each time I was encouraged by the inspiring efforts of others.

We have already achieved an incredible amount. In the last few months we have

  • created the new department of Global Languages and Cultures
  • drafted guidelines and processes for almost every aspect of the academic enterprise
  • incorporated the Biomedical Sciences undergraduate major with 2,700 students
  • absorbed and reconfigured the University Studies degree
  • created an integrated college-wide advising team with 65 staff advisers, in addition to welcoming the Office of Pre-professional Advising and Transition Academic Programs.

We have done all this and more while maintaining our massive efforts in teaching, research and service — and while working through some of the challenges of centralization.

Late-Breaking News

On that topic, I'm going off-script because I have some late-breaking news after a meeting this morning with President Banks and her cabinet. We discussed some of the organizational challenges that everyone in this room has been affected by in in one way or other, focusing particularly on marketing and communications, finance, human resources, alumni relations, and lab safety operations and inventory. I just want briefly to highlight the outcomes of those discussions this morning.

In marketing and communication, the scale of our enterprise requires a suitably scaled-up communication effort. So, we will be appointing an Assistant Vice President of Marking and Communications for this college and increasing the communication staff by more than 50% to allow us to have the team that would be able to tell the story of everything that is going on in Arts and Sciences. 

In finance, John Crawford, TAMU Vice President and Chief Financial Officer will be adding and repositioning positions to ensure that there's consistent support across the academic enterprise, and that all of our departments are supported in their business functions to an equal standard. 

I have heard from many of you that you have been doing HR work that you were not doing before. That will stop, and that is the clear commitment of Vice President of Human Resources Damon Slaydon. He will re-purpose people and add people to make sure that all HR duties are done by centralized HR Personnel, not by our staff with academic support responsibilities, our department heads, or faculty hiring research staff.

Development is incredibly important to us, and I'll talk a little bit more about it later on. We have been understaffed in our development office. The Texas A&M Foundation will be adding at least three more Development Officers before the end of the summer. Working with the TAMU University Advancement Office, we will be creating an office of alumni relations to help us reach out to our former students and to do a lot of the work that is part of the development enterprise but that shouldn't be done by  development officers who need to be building relations and building community.

Finally, as many of you know, after the centralization, we encountered something that none of us ever heard of before, but that now we know as “orphan duties.” One set of orphan duties has to do with lab safety lab operations. We have hired a Director of Lab Safety and Operations to coordinate our efforts in that area. We will be coordinating existing staff and also adding at least three new people to make sure that we've got a suitably safe, compliant and supportive environment for our instructional and research laboratories.

So that's the late-breaking news as of 10 o’clock this morning.

Obviously, I know that there is plenty of fine-tuning left to be done, but these are important steps, and I am grateful to President Banks and her team for their strong support.

Our Opportunities

What I want to focus on today are the opportunities, rather than challenges. Chancellor Sharp and President Banks have both spoken of a new “Golden Age” for Texas A&M. I have to agree. In 10 years’ time Texas A&M will be recognized as the preeminent university in Texas and a worthy equal to the very best universities in the nation and in the world. The College of Arts and Sciences will be leading the charge to take us there.

Why is the College of Arts and Sciences so important in this university’s continued rise? It is because Arts and Sciences is the heart of the University. We touch every student, of course, through the core curriculum. In Fall 2022 we taught an incredible 311,000 Semester Credit Hours, just over 1/3 of the total number of SCHs taught at Texas A&M. We provide the foundation for almost every degree program at Texas A&M — the  knowledge — and teach the skills that allow all Texas A&M graduates to be numerate, scientifically aware and able to navigate the traditions, innovations, cultural differences and shared histories that make up the fabric of human society. This is a source of strength and should be a source of pride for all of us.

At the same time, Arts and Sciences is the home of pure discovery and basic knowledge creation. In the lab, out on the research ship, in the library, at the dig, in the observatory and on the field site, our faculty, research staff, graduate students and dedicated undergraduate students are shaping and rethinking our understanding of the natural and social worlds. The research enterprise at Texas A&M, no less than the teaching enterprise, rests upon the foundation that we provide here in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Arts and Sciences is a standard-bearer for the values of unfettered inquiry and courageous investigation that have defined universities since medieval times. Many of us research and teach controversial topics that may be challenging or that fly in the face of political orthodoxy or the priorities of powerful interest groups. It is our responsibility as the provider of these foundations to promote and protect the free exchange and expression of ideas and to investigate complex issues of race, class, identity and health. The College of Arts and Sciences is and must continue to be a touchstone for the responsible exercise of academic freedom.

Into the Future

So, looking ahead 10 years, what could the College of Arts and Sciences look like? I want to sketch a general picture and then talk in more detail about the roads that will take us there.

I see –

A College of Arts and Sciences that is a destination for world-leading researchers and teachers; for prospective undergraduates and graduate students who will come here to work at their cutting edge of their fields in state-of-the-art facilities; and for staff who will be able to develop their careers in a fulfilling, respectful and supportive environment.

A College of Arts and Sciences that is setting the agenda in research, scholarship and the curriculum, where we are innovating, both within our academic disciplines and across them.

A College of Arts and Sciences that is a powerful voice on the national and international stage taking the lead on tackling the great challenges that will define our collective future — challenges of energy transition, climate resilience, political dysfunction, health disparities and social justice.

A College of Arts and Sciences that is a hub for collaboration within Texas A&M, of course, but also as an equal partner with the top universities in the nation and the world — with the National Labs in this country and with their equivalents overseas. 

We can all envision what this will look like when we get there. We will see Ph.D. graduates from Arts and Sciences in faculty positions at the world's top universities and research labs. We will see Arts and Sciences as the home for large-scale, federally-funded centers and institutes that set the national and international research agenda. We will see our graduates rising to leadership positions in state and national government, in industry, in NGOs and as entrepreneurs. We will see our faculty and graduates well represented on the panels and commissions that drive policy change, testifying to Congress and sought after as media experts.

What has become clear to me more and more over the last year is that the foundation has already been laid for this ambitious future. There is so much strength and potential across Arts and Sciences. We are already doing many of the things that will take us to where we want to go.

However, to progress even further, our efforts need

more coordination,
more strategic direction,
and, most importantly, more resources.

I want to use the rest of the time available to highlight the exciting things that are already going on across the College of Arts and Sciences and talk about the strategic initiatives and opportunities that will take us from where we are to where we want to be.

I will organize these remarks around the basic themes articulated by President Banks in her
State of the University address:

Transformational education
Connectivity to the state, nation and world
Translational research

Dr Banks's fourth theme, the Aggie Way, runs through everything that we do and aspire to

Transformational education

Higher education has the power to change lives, families and communities. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the extraordinary opportunity that we have here in Arts and Sciences because of our scale and place at the heart of the largest public university in the country. Of our 16,844 undergraduate students, around 25% are the first in their family to attend college. That is 4,000 families that are being impacted by the education we provide. Many of these families are low income. We have around 1,000 students who are Regents Scholars with a family income of <$40,000 per year. Think of the multiplier effect as the power of education spreads through families and communities.

We have a great opportunity, but also a great responsibility. We are not only a land-, sea-, and space-grant school, but also a federally-designated Hispanic-serving institution with over 5,000 Hispanic students in Arts and Sciences. We must make sure that all of our students are successful and that we are fully accessible and welcoming to all qualified students, irrespective of background, race, ethnicity or identity.

This Fall, thanks to the hard work of many faculty and staff across the college, we will be rolling out the Arts and Sciences First to Finish Program, complementing our Regents Scholars Program. This new program will provide a four-year experience for all 4,000 first-generation students in Arts and Sciences, who will be supported by program managers and program coordinators as well as peer mentors.

In addition, as part of Arts and Sciences’ ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, we rolled out yesterday our Inclusive Excellence Grant Program to support initiatives to enhance student success in our diverse and dynamic student body. 

The most recent cohort of students for which we have complete information is the cohort that arrived in 2018, the Class of 2022, including both First Time in College and transfer students. Within that group, the four-year graduation rate was 72.8%. This is actually pretty good. It is nearly 8% points above the university number.

But of course, there is room for improvement. I think that our integrated advising team together with TAP and other student success professionals will make a big difference. We also need to be very attentive to bottleneck courses. A lot of work has gone into addressing bottlenecks in BIMS, particularly in physiology and anatomy classes, thanks to the hard work of dedicated instructors and graduate students in the Department of Biology. But we have other bottlenecks, and I am grateful to President Banks and Provost Sams, who have allocated base funding in the amount of $3,000,000 to help us address those challenges as well as cope with anticipated enrollment growth over the next two academic years.

Time-to-degree is affected by affordability. The more college costs, the more time students with limited means have to spend working. Arts and Sciences is taking the lead in lowering costs for students through OER (Open Educational Resources). 68% of all the courses at Texas A&M that use OER are in Arts and Sciences, and we estimate that our students have saved nearly $2M in the eight months that we have been a single college, with the Departments of English and Biology taking the lead.

On the theme of affordability, this is where our friends and supporters can help us achieve truly transformational impacts for Arts and Sciences and for Texas A&M. We need more studentships and scholarship support to ensure that nobody is held back by financial need. And we must ensure that our students have access to those high-impact experiences that can change lives, such as studying abroad and engaging in research.

Transformational teaching is helped by transformational facilities. And extraordinary efforts have already been made in this direction with the newly opened Chemistry labs in the 140,000 square-foot Instructional Laboratory and Innovative Learning Building. We probably have the most advanced and pedagogically sophisticated organic and inorganic chemistry labs in the country.

Looking ahead, I and others are dreaming of a Biological Sciences Teaching and Research complex on West Campus, where we will have state-of-the-art teaching and study spaces coexisting with laboratory space for the expanding research enterprise. This will most likely be a renovation of existing space, but you only need look at Peterson Hall or Zachry Hall to see what can be achieved with a well-designed and well-funded renovation project. 

We are also innovating in the curriculum.

  • Our planned new Department of Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences will be a focal point to engage faculty from other colleges and schools, including from the Health Science Center.
  • The new Department of Global Languages and Cultures is developing a Global Studies degree program as well as a new Jewish Studies minor and taking the lead on an ambitious multi-million dollar proposal for flagship programs in Russian and Chinese language instruction.
  • The new Society, Ethics and Law major housed in the Department of Philosophy will give students the interdisciplinary, analytic and research skills they need to hit the ground running at law school or any other profession they choose.
  • As part of the Arts and Sciences Environment and Sustainability Initiative, our two degree programs focused on the environment will be re-envisioned by a broad coalition of faculty already working together.
  • We also have plans for an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics, drawing upon faculty from Statistics and Biology, and an M.S. degree in Climate and Risk housed in Atmospheric Sciences.

One way of supporting these initiatives, particularly in interdisciplinary degrees, is team-taught courses. We will soon be rolling out a program to facilitate faculty collaborating across departments on interdisciplinary upper-level courses, getting past the institutional "bean-counting" that has often stood in the way of allowing our faculty to co-teach.

Connectivity to the State, Nation and World

The College of Arts and Sciences is deeply embedded in our local community.

  • The Brazos Valley Reads program is run by the English Department with multiple local partners, bringing internationally recognized authors to the area for public events and to meet with community members.
  • Just last weekend, we hosted in the Mitchell Physics Building the latest iteration of the highly successful Physics and Engineering Festival, with over 5,000 participants.
  • For many years, the Chemistry Roadshow has been traveling to high schools and junior high schools to entertain and educate with no cost to school or student.
  • The Geography Department organizes the largest GIS day in the country to promote geospatial literacy, education and employment.
  • Students from our Atmospheric Sciences Department provide weather forecasts locally for KAMU radio.

Our departments, centers and institutes serve the state of Texas in multiple ways.

  • For 40 years, the Public Policy Research Institute has improved the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs in diverse domains, including maternal and child health, senior wellness, criminal justice, veterans assistance, education and more.
  • Through the Texas Automated Buoy System, faculty and staff researchers in Oceanography monitor the entire Texas coast and Galveston Bay for oil spills and other threats to coastal communities and offshore activities.
  • The 'Reimagining the Chemical Heartland' initiative based in the Department of Chemistry encompasses a range of funded projects exploring possibilities for a post-carbon future in the Gulf Coast and Permian Basin.
  • The Department of Atmospheric Sciences is the home of the Texas State Climatologist.

Through the aggieTEACH Program, the College of Arts and Sciences, in partnership with the School of Education and Human Development, is already the largest provider in Texas of secondary school teachers in mathematics and science subjects. We are currently planning to grow aggieTEACH across the full range of departments and subjects in Arts and Sciences. What greater multiplier effect could there be in education than by educating the educators?

As we think about how to grow the Arts and Sciences footprint in the public sphere, our longstanding but newly revitalized Journalism program will play a key role. Two new degree programs, a BA and a BS in Journalism, are currently with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Journalism views itself as an extension of Texas A&M's outreach mission. At a state level, it will address news deserts in Texas, with particular attention to communities relevant to our designation as a Hispanic-serving institution. At a national level, the Texas A&M facility in Washington, D.C., will provide a platform for internships and engagement with national media organizations.

This is a timely moment to consider Arts and Sciences' impact on the national stage. Each year, the U.S. President publishes the Economic Report of the President to discuss the most pressing economic and social challenges facing the country. President Biden's most recent Economic Report, released earlier this month, featured the research of five faculty members from our Department of Economics.

Nor is this an isolated instance. Members of the Departments of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences have testified to Congress and contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A number of faculty here in Arts and Sciences, working together with colleagues in the Bush School and the Law School, have been exploring an initiative at the intersection of scholarly research, student learning and community engagement. The Initiative for Freedom, Responsibility and Citizenship will develop academic programs to help our students better understand the nature of freedom and the roles and responsibilities of citizenship and use cutting-edge research to engage community and influence policy through, for example, voter education programs, dispute resolution services and direct interventions in policy debates. 

Arts and Sciences is well-placed to enhance this kind of connectivity because we house regional and national hubs for policy-related research. An example is the Texas Census Research Data Center, which I had the pleasure of helping open a few years ago. The RDC, spearheaded from within the Department of Sociology but also an important tool for geographers and economists, among others, is one of a handful of centers across the country where researchers can come to study the treasure trove of data generated by the US Census Bureau.

Translational research

Translational research is the translation of basic research into results that directly benefit the population at large. Arts and Sciences has many achievements in this area and plans for still more.

But before going into them, I want to emphasize that translational research stands on the foundation of basic research. As a wise cosmologist once remarked, if we only did applied research, we would still be working on refinements to the spear.

We must continue to support and celebrate our pure mathematicians, philologists, theoretical physicists, literary scholars, metaphysicians and all those of us whose work is more theoretical and abstract. Not just because this work might one day have practical applications, but because knowledge and understanding are intrinsic goods, and it is our job as a College of Arts and Sciences to promote the disinterested search for truth as a fundamental academic value.

And, as far as the disinterested search for truth is concerned, we are doing pretty well. The College of Arts and Sciences houses more than half of the distinguished professors at Texas A&M. We have on the faculty recipients of the Nobel Prize, Guggenheim Fellows, members of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a host of distinctions in national and international professional societies. We are among the most successful colleges in recruiting fellows to the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study and then keeping them here at Texas A&M.

A great example of how basic research, applied research and translational research are all intertwined is the Cyclotron Institute, which is the home of two Department of Energy Centers of Excellence and, most recently, a DOE Topical Theory Collaboration. It provides the infrastructure for our highly ranked graduate programs in nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry; offers testing facilities for industry and defense partners; and produces isotope Astatine-211 as part of a cancer treatment collaboration with  MD Anderson.

Cutting edge translational research is taking place all over the college. Some examples:

  • Faculty in Psychological and Brain Sciences do science that changes people’s lives — on how to reduce traumatic memories; on how to treat anxiety and depression. All the way from anxiety risk in the mother-child dyad during infancy to changes in motor activity and ability in older adults.
  • Applied ethicists in Philosophy make interventions in areas from veterinary care to the ethics of technology and artificial intelligence. 
  • Biologists are developing novel approaches to study spinal cord repair, using diverse animal models to study circadian dysregulation and insomnia, and developing novel anti-fungals and antibiotics.
  • Historians take historical research into the broader community through digital history and public history.
  • We have multiple ongoing initiatives in green chemistry, including an NSF Center for Chemical Innovation focused on solvent-free alternatives to chemical synthesis using mechanochemistry.
  • Researchers in Communication enhance health outcomes by improving patient-provider interaction and designing impactful health communication messages and health promotion campaigns.

Two major initiatives in Arts and Sciences will help to build capacity and increase our translational impact. The Environment and Sustainability initiative has huge potential for setting the agenda in Texas and beyond for dealing with the challenges posed by changing climate.

In the medical arena, the new Texas A&M Drug Discovery Center will be led from within Arts and Sciences to serve the whole campus. This $4M investment will bridge the gap between basic chemical and biological research, opening up new opportunities for collaboration with medical researchers.

Looking ahead

The scope and depth of what we have already in Arts and Sciences is quite extraordinary. But to move ahead, we need to invest in our people — in the faculty, staff and students who have brought us to where we are today. Many of you are rightly concerned about salaries that have not kept pace with inflation, and I have had many discussions on this topic with the Arts and Sciences Caucus of the Faculty Senate.

Significant steps have already been taken. The first move was to set a floor for graduate student salaries of $20,000 for 9 months. That is not enough, I know, and I am happy that we have a number of departments that are able to pay more and to provide funding over the summer. But it is significantly better than it was. I would like to express my appreciation to department heads, members of the graduate instruction committee and departmental business officers who worked hard to make this happen.

Graduate students are nominally half-time 9-month employees. Taking this into account, the 12-month full-time equivalent for a graduate student salary is around $54,000, which is close to the NIH minimum postdoc salary. Accordingly, this has been set as the floor for postdoctoral research fellow salaries. It does not seem appropriate to pay those who have the Ph.D. degree less than the minimum salary of those still studying for it. 

I am happy to report that the Division of Research has followed our lead and changed the university minimum salary for postdocs to $50,000 from $36,000. The Division of Research will fund any salary increases required to increase the salaries of postdocs currently on the payroll to $50,000. The College of Arts and Sciences will cover the balance to bring salaries to the $54,000 minimum.

Another area of concern is salaries for our Academic Professional Track salary. In the FY23 budget, which is the first budget for the unified College of Arts and Sciences, I found 81 faculty members with a 9-month salary of below $55,000, including 60 below $50,000. This included some of our most accomplished teachers with years and sometimes decades of experience. It is unacceptable, and the Faculty Affairs and Business teams in Arts and Sciences put in a lot of hours on a plan to start setting things right.

Fortunately, President Banks intervened and decided to set (and fund) a university-wide minimum salary of $55,000 for all APT faculty. This was an inspired action that laid down a clear marker for the whole university. At the same time, by funding significant salary increases that we would otherwise have had to cover in Arts and Sciences, Dr. Banks has made it possible for us to move more aggressively in right-sizing salaries than would otherwise have been possible.

We have set aside $1.5M in base funds to address equity and compression issues for both tenure stream and APT faculty. This is around 1.5% of our annual faculty salary budget and will of course be in addition to any merit pool approved by the Board of Regents as well as to actions and equity adjustments that have already been approved. We are also looking closely at staff salaries and have taken a number of actions to correct the most egregious problems, with others planned. I anticipate that a total of $250,000 will be allocated to staff equity and reclassifications, corresponding also to 1.5% of the total salary budget.

The Faculty Affairs team in Arts and Sciences has been working hard on a number of other initiatives to enhance the working environment, including guidelines on acute family care and our Arts and Sciences awards program, which will give out 62 awards to faculty staff and students. I hope you will be able to join us on May 2 at 4 p.m. in The Zone Club at Kyle Field to recognize the awardees.

We also need to bring new colleagues into Arts and Sciences. This year, 18 recruitments were authorized in the Transformational Hiring Program — an investment in salary and start-up of around $20M over the next five years. More than half of the transformational hires have already come to campus. I have enjoyed visiting with some truly outstanding potential colleagues, and I am happy that several have already agreed to join Texas A&M, thanks to outstanding work from our department heads and faculty.

As you know, this is a transitional year. We have been working through some budget issues, trying to understand the commitments and obligations that we have inherited from three very different budget models. It hasn’t always been pretty, and we are not yet done with the forensic accounting, but I feel confident that we can now make some aggressive moves in faculty hiring.

A very important factor here has been some changes in how Texas A&M treats differential tuition. The College of Arts and Sciences will now be given a non-trivial portion of the differential tuition received by other colleges to reflect the amount of teaching that we do for them. This places some of our existing funding programs on a firmer footing, such as the important Visiting Assistant Professor Program in Mathematics, which is both our largest generator of Semester Credit Hours and a top research department. This new funding is also key to funding our new hiring initiatives.

We are now in a position to take a different approach. It is time for a Foundational Hiring Program to recruit the faculty who will help us to build the new College of Arts and Sciences and lay the foundation for future success. I anticipate that we will have over 150 searches over the next two years, FY24 and FY25, with more than 100 tenured or on the tenure track I will be asking departments to start working on two-year strategic hiring plans so that we can hit the ground running for the next recruitment season.

That brings me back to development and philanthropy. We need tools to recruit new faculty and fight off attempts from other universities to steal our stars away. The most powerful tools are endowed positions — chairs, professorships and faculty fellowships. The value of an endowed position is not purely transactional. It is not just about the revenue that they generate. It is about the prestige that comes with holding a named position at a major research university — one of the highest honors that an academic can receive.

We currently have 868 faculty, or thereabouts — the largest number of any college at Texas A&M. Some of us will go elsewhere or retire over the next few years. But with our foundational hires, our transformational hires, with aggressive retention and with the continued recruitment of master teachers on the academic professional track, I can see us reaching a faculty size of 1,000.

Growth, of course, is not an end in itself. But growing our faculty will go hand in hand with academic innovation, with expanding our research footprint, developing new degree programs and forging new partnerships. By doing all this, we will create a core of consistent excellence at the heart of Texas A&M. That will elevate us and elevate the whole university.

So, in conclusion, let me thank you again for all the work you have done. We have a great college, and we will have a still greater one.

Thanks and gig 'em.