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Conversation With

Conversation With: Jennifer Cowley

The UTA president shares details about her career path and plans for the future of the university.
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When she was named UTA’s 10th president in April 22, former urban planner Jennifer Cowley became the first woman to hold the role. It was a homecoming for the Arlington native, who returned to Texas after climbing the career ladder at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Along with developing and implementing a five-pronged strategic plan for UTA, cultivating an environment that supports diversity, equity, and inclusion is an area of focus for Cowley.

“UTA is the fifth-most diverse university in the country,” she says. “We represent the face of this region. It’s fantastic to be in an environment where students are learning together, want to learn about each other’s cultures and backgrounds and make the world a better place together. For me, it’s about fostering that—creating an environment where students can graduate from UTA and know how to communicate across cultures and appreciate each other.”

In an interview with D CEO earlier this year, Cowley shared more about her career path and her plans for the future at UTA. Read on:

D CEO: You grew up mostly in Arlington. Did you ever think you would preside over your hometown university?

JENNIFER COWLEY: “No, when I was growing up here, that was not in my thoughts. I can remember back in middle school thinking I was either going to be a fashion designer or a neurosurgeon. When you’re young, you think anything is possible. Neither of those two things happened, but I’ve had a pretty fantastic career.”

D CEO: You ended up studying political science and urban planning. How did you develop an interest in those things?

COWLEY: “Once I matured, I realized I wanted a career that was devoted to public service. Studying political science gave me a chance to explore different types of government. I came to understand that I could have the most impact at a local level. What people care about most are their neighborhoods, community parks, activities, and things that happen at the local level. I thought I would love to become a city manager someday. That’s why I pursued urban planning and, ultimately, public administration. I wanted to see how I could help shape the development of a city. Frankly, running a university is not that different. It’s like having my own little city here.”

D CEO: Where did the interest in public service come from?

COWLEY: “I couldn’t point to one specific thing, but more of an exploration of career fields where you can have a meaningful and visible impact. I also had volunteer experiences that helped show me the benefits of being engaged in the community. There are multiple ways you can serve.”

D CEO: How did you segue from city management to academics?

COWLEY: “While I was studying and doing internships on a potential career pathway to becoming a city manager, one of my professors encouraged me to think about a PhD program. I had a view that professors were these super smart people, and I didn’t see myself like that. So it was really wonderful to have this faculty member notice me and encourage me. I ultimately pursued a PhD, after I had some time working professionally, and went on to become a faculty member at Ohio State University.”

D CEO: How long were you there?

COWLEY: “Sixteen years. I started as a faculty member in planning and then ultimately became the head of the City Planning program. I had wonderful experiences at Ohio State; they really cultivated my leadership skills and offered continued growth opportunities. I was able to have different experiences that positioned me well for an institution-level role. Then it got to the point where my husband and I were ready to come back to Texas. He grew up in Corpus Christi. So it was just about finding the right opportunity at the right time.”

D CEO: What was that opportunity?

COWLEY: “We moved back to Texas in 2017 when I joined the University of North Texas as provost and vice president for academic affairs. As someone who’s a planner and likes to build things, being in an environment like North Texas as a region—as well as these institutions, UNT and UTA—there’s just a tremendous amount of potential.

“One of the extraordinary things that we have here in Texas is both legislative support and institutional support for making sure that our metropolitan areas have a thriving research university. There has been a tremendous amount of growth in that capacity-building at our Tier 1 institutions across the state. Getting to be part of mapping that out and executing on that is been a tremendous opportunity.”

D CEO: Why is research so important?

COWLEY: “The world is a better place because of the research that happens on our campuses. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Advil and 60 percent of the oral medications that are taken are safer because of research at UTA. The highways you drive on—innovation happening in our civil engineering department is creating roadways that you don’t have to maintain every year. Because they’re coming up with different blends for cement, with plastics and other materials to make our roadways last longer and save taxpayer dollars. Additionally, our nursing college helped develop forensic nursing. For example, we created procedures that help support criminal prosecution of rapes. It’s an honor to get to work with such extraordinarily talented people and to help them help make our society better. The opportunities for invention and innovation are limitless.”

D CEO: What are your goals for the future?

COWLEY: “We’re focusing on five themes as part of our strategic planning process. First, of course, is student success. Our central mission is to make sure that we’re developing incredible students who are ready to work at companies throughout our region or serve our military. For us, it’s about what we can do in partnership with the companies that are already here, as well as be a key economic development partner in recruiting new businesses to the region. We know that we are a central provider of talent in the fastest-growing region in the country; we have to be working hand in hand together to make sure that we’re prepared for the new companies and organizations that move here.

“That means academic innovation—making sure that we’re providing the skills and aptitudes that are needed for the workforce of tomorrow. As a Texas Tier 1 university, we’ve made tremendous progress, but we need to chart our path forward. What does our next chapter look like? How can we continue to build capacity and align with our regionally relevant industries?”

D CEO: What are the other strategic planning themes?

COWLEY: “Along with student success, research, and innovation, it’s people and culture—and that’s really about making sure that we are a great place to work. What do we need to do to make this the most desirable place for people to want to come and be part of achieving our mission? Because ultimately, it’s staff members who are helping to develop our students. We want to make sure we have the most talented team possible. And then the last thing is around infrastructure. In order to help support growth, we have to make sure that we have the facilities we need and that they are aligned with the other areas of our strategic plan.”

D CEO: What are the greatest challenges and opportunities at UTA?

COWLEY: “I think the opportunities are endless. UTA is extremely well positioned to continue its path forward to be one of the strongest universities in the nation. We have opportunities to become an even stronger economic development partner, innovating our academic curriculum to help support the companies that are here and relocating here and growing alongside our region. The biggest challenge is the endless list of good ideas and how to pick the best ones. People have wonderful ideas for how UTA can be an even stronger university; it’s a matter of picking the best ones to seed and allow to grow.”


Christine Perez

Christine Perez

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Christine is the editor of D CEO magazine and its online platforms. She’s a national award-winning business journalist who has…

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