We built this city. Now, can UT help make Austin the best version of herself?

It has been a long and winding road for Cole. Raised in Dallas and South Carolina, he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Davidson College in North Carolina. He subsequently graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia University, where he studied social work. “My energy was really in academia and around mental health issues in particular,” he says. Cole moved to Austin in 2003 to teach at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where he eventually became dean. He also became the resource person for a double degree program between the seminary and the UT School of Social Work. When the school’s associate dean at the time announced his retirement in 2014, Dean Luis Zayas invited Cole to consider joining UT’s faculty of social work. Cole remembers. ” I was delighted. I wanted to be in a research university and I also knew that coming to UT and the School of Social Work was really a great opportunity: I could continue to do what I had always done in my teaching and research. as well as in leadership, but also leaning in new directions, which was exciting and engaging.

Five years ago, at 48, with a degree in philosophy, theology and social work, Cole was a multi-perspective knowledge powerhouse. Then he became an expert at something else, something he wasn’t looking for. One day, he noticed that his index finger was shaking for no apparent reason. After this continued for a while, he went to his doctor and was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease.

Now, among his many other areas of expertise, Cole is an expert in chronic disease. He is the author or publisher of 11 books, the most recent of which is “Counseling Persons with Parkinson’s Disease” (Oxford, 2021). “Discerning the Way: Lessons from Parkinson’s Disease” will be published later this year. And his first collection of poetry, “In the Care of Plenty: Poems”, will be published in 2022.

“So far I’ve been very lucky,” he says: mild symptoms that are controlled with medication, mainly stiffness and cramps in the feet. “My left arm doesn’t want to straighten anymore,” he said. “We now know that Parkinson’s disease is truly a spectrum disease. If you know someone with Parkinson’s, you know someone because it’s snowflake disease – it affects people differently, ”he adds. “But it has become part of my raison d’être to try to raise awareness through education and to fundraise for the cause.” He has created a blog (PDWise.com) and is a regular guest blogger for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. He wrote “Counseling People with Parkinson’s Disease” for a professional audience, but also included aspects of his own story, so the chapters alternate between memoir and professional guide.

Plus, he says, “Parkinson’s opened up a whole new world with a lot of wonderful and amazing people I never would have met. I also teach differently, and I also lead differently, because of this disease. I am not disabled, but I can be at some point, and I feel that people with Parkinson’s disease and those living with chronic disease or disability are my people. I’m trying to use my platform to do something good with Parkinson’s disease.

We spoke on August 25 in Allan Cole’s office in the main building.

Thisit’s not every day that universityThe president’s appoints a poet as his deputy, so congratulations to you and poets around the world!

I didn’t think of it in those terms, but I’ll remind him!

Why did he think it was time for a position like this to be created, and why did he choose you? Did you know each other?

We have known each other for several years. He was the Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at McCombs School, and that’s my role at the School of Social Work, so we attended the same meetings and were in the same network. After he became president, we were talking one day, and he said, “You know I have this idea, and I want to put it before you.”

He wanted the university to use its resources more intentionally with community partners to address pressing social issues of the day, and in particular their impact on the people of the city of Austin. As the idea took shape, I was excited about the work and luckily President Hartzell invited me to lead it. It is still evolving and we are creating it as we go. But there are three issues that we agreed were timely and should receive more attention. These were affordable housing, homelessness and mental health.

The goal is to identify and coordinate resources at UT, especially faculty resources, with the goal of working more intentionally with community stakeholders and partners. Some of these partnerships now exist; some are in the process of being identified. And it’s not just about making life better at UT, but about how we can improve the lives of people in the community at large, across town. It’s really going to take a collective effort to alleviate these challenges.

How do you envision these three overlapping starting points – mental health, homelessness and affordable housing?

All of these overlap, as do other needs such as health care and transportation. We start with affordable housing, mental health and homelessness. I have no illusions that we are going to solve any of these problems, but if we can make progress to improve them, I feel like we are good stewards of our resources.

What does success look like for this position? These are huge issues, so what would a gash in one of them look like?

I hope the University of Texas at Austin will play an important role in helping to improve some of the issues we face. If we have fewer homeless people and we have more people receiving the mental health services they need and we are thinking in new, creative and mutually beneficial ways about affordable housing – and maybe modeling some of it. of that as a university – so I’ll think we’ve been successful.

When you say model affordable housing, can you elaborate?

How can we, in partnership with developers, community leaders and elected officials, find models of affordability that make sense to all parties involved? How do you involve developers by helping them find ways to build cheaper housing? How to broaden approaches to land use? How do we partner with other community members who do this kind of work to make the best use of our resources, which are largely intellectual resources. We have some really smart people who know how to help advance some of these challenges, so how can we use that knowledge to meaningfully contribute to community efforts to improve the public good.

Where are these experts from our faculty? For affordable housing, for example, which schools and colleges would you look for experts in?

The School of Architecture for sure – colleagues in town planning, urban design and architecture; also professors in the Faculty of Law, McCombs School of Business, LBJ School of Public Affairs; then my own school, the Steve Hicks Social of Work. It is the primary schools that do this work on housing. But there are also teachers from other schools who are interested in affordable housing. When we look at the cost of construction, for example, you have people in engineering and science who might be involved.

When we look at mental health, that changes – fewer professors in architecture and more in social work, psychology and psychiatry and related disciplines. And with roaming, the experts are changing again.

And do you have an appointment with Dell Med yourself?

I have a courtesy appointment at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. My expertise is in mental health. I know less about homelessness and even less about affordable housing. What I think is good enough is bringing people together to have meaningful conversations and trying to identify individuals and networks who should be talking to each other. So I’m learning a lot about affordable housing. I am learning a lot about homelessness. I will also learn about mental health, no doubt, but I come with more knowledge of this piece than the other two.

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