'Reversing the Brain Drain': A Tier One Report
Friendly Competition Has Led to Substantial Public and Private Support for Research in Texas
July 18, 2013
This piece is an excerpt from a report that first ran in the current edition of UT Dallas Magazine. The magazine is available online or by free Apple iTunes app.
When President David E. Daniel set out to transform The University of Texas at Dallas into a national research university, he drafted a paper that could help get the state school there—and improve the standing of some equally ambitious competitors.
Concepts in Daniel’s white paper found their way into Texas law. The Tier One bill authored by State Rep. Dan Branch released hundreds of millions of dollars for education and brought new meaning (and prestige) to being among a small group of what the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has dryly described as “emerging research universities.”
The Tier One legislation drew a line that separated seven (now eight) state universities from the rest and set benchmarks for ranking the success of each institution in the race. It altered the vision of what higher education can do for Texas — reshape economic landscapes, create high-tech jobs and reverse the brain drain that puts the state second only to New Jersey as an exporter of talented high school graduates to out-of-state colleges.
Tier One? Are we there yet? Daniel is asked versions of these questions often.
UT Dallas President David E. Daniel drafted a white paper outlining his Tier One ideas, many of which found their way into state legislation.
Nationally competitive research universities are often referred to as Tier One. The term is inexact, but it typically describes schools that award large numbers of doctoral degrees, attract hundreds of millions of research dollars, hire nationally prominent faculty, admit high-quality students, and show well in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings.
Some believe UT Dallas already functions as a Tier One university, and by some measures — the U.S. News & World Report’s best colleges report — the University is ranked in the first tier nationally.
But Daniel takes pains to avoid some of the overambitious language people in his position tend to use. In preparing an analysis of the University’s progress toward Tier One for a recent presentation at Texas Instruments, he put things in perspective.
Becoming “the best public research university in America” is an enormous task. It means displacing the University of California, Berkeley or the University of Virginia and, as he put it, “few universities truly would be in a position to do that.”
On the other hand, he said, joining the ranks of the truly exceptional is an attainable goal, and there are a number of distinguished universities he believes UT Dallas can use as benchmarks.
They include members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) such as Iowa State University, the University of Kansas, the University of Oregon, Stony Brook in New York, Washington State University and several falling just short of that group.
State Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas authored a bill that supported the advancement of emerging research universities.
Becoming a member of the AAU — the nation’s most exclusive academic organization — reflects that a university is inarguably Tier One. Only 62 universities are members of the invitation-only association, which in recent years voted out one member (University of Nebraska at Lincoln), while another withdrew (Syracuse University).
UT Dallas compares well with Daniel’s benchmark group under the yardsticks typically used to rank universities. Its students, as measured by standardized tests or percentage graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class, are top-tier.
It also has the resources to compete. To date, UT Dallas’ $310 million endowment is more than that of one of the AAU members on Daniel’s list, and if its share of Texas’ Permanent University Fund is added, the total is $725 million, which is solidly top-tier.
On the other side of the equation, UT Dallas’ $36 million in federal research expenditures is only about half of the lowest expenditure total in the benchmark group and one-fourth the average. Total research of $95 million is “less of a problem,” Daniel said, although the University is barely in the game in the number of doctorates it grants. Similarly, while UT Dallas has a number of stars on its faculty, its numbers of National Academy of Sciences members and faculty awards are less than half those of the schools on the president’s benchmark list.
Dr. Bruce Gnade said research plays a vital role in training and educating the University's students.
But the University is gaining ground in these critical areas at an encouraging rate, Daniel noted. Federal research at UT Dallas has tripled in 10 years, which is a remarkable result given that it has come at a time when federal research and development has not grown.
“Imagine you were a company and you had tripled in profitability over a period of 10 years in a market when the market didn’t grow,” Daniel said. “We didn’t go acquire another university. We didn’t merge with another university. We did it organically. We brought people in who did it.”
Tier One is all about building up research, building up capability. “We’re sort of like the Marines compared to the Army,” he said. “We’re small but mighty, pound per pound.”
So the University’s goal is to keep scaling up, growing its student population by about 5 percent per year. UT Dallas has nearly 20,000 students, but some of the best research universities, even the small ones, can have up to 30,000.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry visited the UT Dallas campus to sign the Tier One bill into law.
Increased student population supports more faculty and gives academic departments wider reach. For example, Daniel pointed out, UT Dallas’ Chemistry Department has about 19 tenured or tenure-track faculty members compared to 30 to 50 in departments at the top research schools. With that number of faculty, “you can more completely cover the field of chemistry, from the biochemistry of cancer detection to the electrochemistry of what will be powerful enough batteries to drive our cars for 1,000 miles instead of 100 miles someday,” he explained. “That’s what being competitive is all about.”
Bruce Gnade, UT Dallas’ vice president for research, said the growth of the faculty from 300 in 2003 to 500 today is supporting a broader range of research and attracting more research money. “As long as we continue to grow, we’ll continue on that trajectory,” he said.
For instance, the Texas Analog Center of Excellence, founded just four years ago, has quickly become a vitally influential research hub on campus. Its mission is to find innovations in integrated circuits and systems that improve energy efficiency, healthcare, public safety and security. Similarly, the bioengineering department is just three years old, but if it meets its strategic plan, it will have 300 students by 2020. “Bioengineering faculty and some of our electrical engineering faculty are starting to work in the area of medical devices, with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I think research support at UT Dallas from NIH will continue to grow as we add more faculty working in these areas. This is important for us because the NIH has a large portion of the federal research and development budget,” Gnade explained.
Tier One universities have the ability to attract the best and brightest intellectual talent, on both sides of the classroom. “In the end, training and educating students is the primary output of the University, and they are the motivation for doing great research and recruiting great faculty,” Gnade said.
Daniel agrees. “As universities grow toward Tier One status, they attract more qualified students. Students see a greater offering of academic programs, resulting in the availability of a greater variety of classes,” he said. “As the breadth and depth of academics and research at the University grows, the value of students’ diplomas will grow, too.”