Leading Educators: Q&A with Heather Woofter

New Kids on the Block

Leading Educators: Q&A with Heather Woofter

(Courtesy UT Austin)

It’s the start of the 2023–24 academic year, so that means a new crop of leaders are beginning the semester. To check in, AN spoke with a set of leading educators about their roles. Each answered a septet of questions; the sixth in this series is, Heather Woofter, dean of The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.

What are your goals and ambitions for your new role?

With disciplines across all scales of the built environment, I want to build the school’s capacity to model collaborative work, embracing the ecosystem of expertise found here. From architecture to regional planning, and from to historic preservation to landscape architecture, we examine the potential for greater interconnectedness by increasing support for faculty research and collaborative learning opportunities.

Building on the work of my predecessor, Michelle Addington, we need to continue to experiment with technology. We also need to confront the ethics of technology, living with AI, and the professional implications of both to our economies and methods of production.

The exercise of practice in a research university can pose challenges for faculty, yet I believe practice is a critical foundation of design education. We need to model and support innovation through substantive design work. This includes fostering opportunities for community engagement and experiential learning, strengthening partnerships within and beyond the university, and tapping into our faculty’s expertise to advance the school’s vision in research and design practices.

These types of conversations began during the dean search process. Yet ultimately, vision statements can be naïve because you have yet to deeply know a new school and the nuances of communication. I look forward to an evolving set of future goals and ambitions developed in partnership with faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

 Who is someone who has inspired your work and leadership? Why are they inspirational?

Life is a tapestry of friends and people you meet who inspire us. Hence, the influences weave among a community of people exchanging ideas and supporting one another. I’ll mention a few digestible lessons that I’ve learned. From Nader Tehrani—the creation of architecture is meant to serve a greater good. When in a position of design conflict, be clear in your recommendations and trust your clients during the long journey. Design is a team sport, and total control is a myth. From Hank Webber—to accomplish complex, collaborative work, you must articulate a broad strategy and engage a network of diverse people with a collective purpose. From Emily Pulitzer—be humble and tireless in the stewardship of meaningful institutions that live well beyond our history and influence. From Liz Kramer—uncover and design better forms of advocacy and partnership in community-engaged work. The process matters as much as the outcome. And lastly, from Sung Ho Kim—live fully and don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep going!

What are the most urgent topics and challenges for architectural education today?

We are at a critical moment. Climate change, societal and cultural divisions, the dire need to create more equitable living conditions, and technological progress promises to raise questions impacting our economies and ethical boundaries. The design disciplines are at the center of many of these discussions, and, as designers, allied researchers, and planners, we can challenge fundamental forms of education to seek high-impact solutions to complex problems. Works previously viewed as merely scholarly and practices once categorized as solely professional can and should intersect now. We can expand conversations with students, giving them theoretical foundations and practical skills to engage in transdisciplinary work. This flexibility rests on an education that embraces proximity and conversation. Cultivating talent relies on the soft skills of critical thinking, communication, and empathy. While the urgency of world challenges weighs heavily, architectural education needs a balanced and holistic curricular approach to be most effective.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic changed your thinking about being a leader in higher education, if it has?

 The pandemic forced us into a poignant historical moment where many lost loved ones, colleagues, and community members. We were held in collective grief and, paradoxically, felt the sharpness of record-pace problem-solving. The motivation to solve problems dissolved many barriers across the university and the greater community. And, in the face of a complex, ever-changing situation, we learned to be inventive, agile, and resilient—the skills we continue to foster in our ourselves and our students.

Design and planning fields understand the world is interconnected (no building stands alone). We also understand that our success relies on the work and well-being of others. Our charge as educators is to foster that sense of community among students as we face the reality that we are a whole, living, and related system. As neighbors helping neighbors, we experience happiness in supporting others.

How should the topic of sustainability be incorporated into architectural education?

If we are to affect real change, sustainability cannot exist on the periphery; it must be central and embedded. The UT School of Architecture holds an advantage here because our school includes disciplines spanning the full range of the built environment, creating meaningful opportunities for exchange and nuanced approaches to sustainability. This structure, paired with a systems-based approach to climate issues, enables us to operate in a more extensive social, environmental, and economic set of networks to preserve natural resources, protect biodiversity, design cities and regional responses to changing environmental conditions, and modify human growth patterns in the building industry. These areas of curricular attention are supported through the recently established Global Leadership Sustainability Institute at UT Austin and a strong network of university field stations. In addition to curricular attention, we also partner with industry to co-sponsor research efforts, advancing innovative solutions near implementation in practice.

How should the goals of diversity and inclusivity be advanced under your leadership?

Each student has a story. We strive to create cross-cultural appreciation and contribute resources to build equitable opportunities for all. In our education systems, higher representation of racial-, ethnic-, socio-economic-, and neurodiverse populations offers creative practices a rich array of design influences. Students bring diverse perspectives to the university as a form of intelligence, with lived experiences impacting others through dialogue and creative exchange. Similarly, an educational community that is reflective of the broader world emphasizes the need for equivalent professional environments as we seek to address complex world problems.

Our universities should model healthy environments for respectful dialogue and diverse ideas. We need to create meaningful opportunities for conversation and exchange, where many voices and points of view are reflected. To accomplish this, we need to ensure that architectural education is affordable and accessible to all students, regardless of background. We need to develop resources and mechanisms where all students and faculty feel mentored, supported, and heard. We need to encourage opportunities for students to engage in community-based design projects, where we practice accountability and prioritize mutual benefit with our community partners. By situating architecture within the larger world, we foster our students’ capacity to serve as stewards of the built environment and the public good.

Designers are naturally optimistic, reimagining a better world and engaging in a holistic effort to create solutions. Yet more than good intent is needed to create a more equitable environment. The diversity and inclusion compass requires stamina to ensure the production of ongoing research and thoughtful community engagement.

What are you optimistic about as you create the future of architecture and architectural education?

Education is one of life’s greatest gifts, and what happens in the academy contributes to the knowledge foundations necessary for innovation in design and practice. We have the time and space to consider urgent questions as a laboratory of ideas. I’m optimistic about the ways that the UT School of Architecture can build bridges across the university to support the three broad areas of research alignment outlined in the UT Austin strategic plan: energy and environment; technology and society; and health and well-being. I’m also excited about the faculty’s role in studying and advancing strategic design priorities for the Austin region and UT campus. As the university looks to rising housing costs, lack of access to public transit, and disparities in health access and outcomes, they have the scale and resources to collaborate with local communities, study best practices, and model thoughtful solutions. Although challenging, I look forward to being in a discursive environment that protects the exchange of ideas and dialogue so that the university is a global gateway to ideas. I am most optimistic about the passion, creativity, and commitment of this next generation of leaders in the architecture, design, and planning professions to the greater good. As they say at UT Austin, what starts here changes the world.