Funding a bright future

March 29, 2012
By JEFFREY WEISS
Staff Writer
jweiss@dallasnews.com

The University of Texas at Dallas is set for a public announcement Thursday of a $200 million fundraising campaign. The school already has more than $110 million of that in hand.

This is the first major campaign in the 43-year history of UTD.

It is a measure of the school's transformation from a commuter campus of techies and scientists brought together by the founders of Texas Instruments into what could one day receive the mythical but important "Tier One" label of a top research university.

"We are not so unique any more," said provost Hobson Wildenthal, who came to the university 20 years ago. "It's more of a normal university."

He meant that in a good way — a contrast from relatively recent history.

UTD, which actually has a Richardson address, was created in 1969 in a single building set amid 1,100 acres of undeveloped land. The state Legislature initially approved the school for graduate students only. It admitted its first undergraduates six years later, and for many years, most of the students only attended at night.

"During the daytime, we had staff but no students," Wildenthal said.

In 2000, the school had almost 10,945 students. When current president David Daniel took over in 2005, it had 14,480. As of fall 2011, it had more than 19,000 with about 60 percent undergraduates and about 40 percent graduate students. Eventually, Daniel envisions about 24,000 students attending.

Anybody who has driven by the campus along Campbell Road knows that the past few years have seen a lot of new landscaping. But the trees and other decorations are only a small part of the changes. Since Daniel arrived, the school has built new dorms, a dining hall and several new large classroom and research buildings. Only last month, the state board of regents approved a new $85 million science building.

The fundraising campaign, scheduled to run through December 2014, is part of this growth, Daniel said.

"We have stayed true to our founders' vision of becoming the MIT of the Southwest," he said.

That sets the bar incredibly high. And Daniel acknowledged he has a more practical model: Georgia Tech. Set in Atlanta, a city with some of the same advantages and needs as Dallas, Georgia Tech morphed from a relatively small school with local impact into a Tier One university that retained its concentration on science and engineering.

The only prior significant fundraising campaign UTD has had was a relatively small $3 million effort used to prepare for the first undergraduates. When Daniel arrived, he knew that had to change.

The new money will be used, in part, to pay for more endowed faculty positions, which would let the school recruit more top faculty, which would help recruit more top students, and attract more grant money to pay for top research.

All of which could push the school into Tier One territory. Tier One is something like the college football championship. It's not the result of a playoff system or even a universally accepted set of standards. But a school that is invited to join the Association of American Universities or ranks well according to the Center for Measuring University Performance's Top American Research University reports is generally granted the label.

Dallas is among the largest cities in the nation with no Tier One member. It's not an unreasonable goal for UTD, said John Lombardi, president of Louisiana State University System and co-director of The Center for Measuring University Performance.

"It clearly has all the characteristics we look for in an institution that is on the move," he said.

The seeds of this campaign were planted shortly after Daniel arrived. By 2009, financial conditions had turned around enough for the university to start reaching out for new major gifts.

All contributions received since September 2009 are counted in the campaign. They include a $30 million anonymous donation used for "campus enhancement," another $30 million from alumni Naveen Jindal, Charles Davidson, and Nancy Davidson to the now-titled Naveen Jindal School of Management, a couple of $7 million gifts, and more than a dozen others worth more than $1million.

More than $15 million more will be announced at Thursday's kickoff event.

Announcing a fundraising effort that's already more than half over may feel like waiting to sing the "Star Spangled Banner" until halftime. But school officials say that's just how big-time fundraising works. Campaigns like to prime the pump before going public.

The public announcement is intended to bring others on board — and to alert all alumni that such a thing as a major UTD fundraiser is happening. But the sales pitch is also going out to the larger community — that it's worth their while to help this school get better.

"The business community recognizes that what we produce is of great value," Daniel said. "They want more of it."