LUBBOCK, TX (The Dallas Morning News) - Seven public universities are vying to join UT-Austin and Texas A&M as the state's next academic powerhouse.
But those seven contenders face a long, expensive battle if they want to run with the Longhorns and Aggies, an analysis by The Dallas Morning News shows.
The seven schools are diverse in location, size and strengths: the University of North Texas in Denton, UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas, UT-El Paso, UT-San Antonio, the University of Houston and Texas Tech in Lubbock.
Lifting just one of them to national stature will take years, even decades, of financial and political will. Advocates say the effort is worth it for all of the intellectual and economic benefits such institutions would provide for Texas.
State lawmakers vow to get the ball rolling this legislative session.
Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance says the Legislature can't anoint one or two of the seven because the other schools will revolt.
"If you name two and put them in the boat, the other five will be trying to turn the boat over and drown those two," he said.
Each school's leaders will tell you the same thing: Their institution deserves to be a "tier-one" public university.
It's an odd term. And it has no set definition.
Generally, "tier one" connotes a university with major academic street cred - a place where researchers make the next big breakthroughs in science or engineering and where top scholars teach the next generation of leaders and problem-solvers. When your son or daughter wins admission there, the neighbors say "Wow."
Having another elite public university would encourage bright Texas students to stay here instead of heading out of state, advocates say.
Plus, a so-called tier-one university generates new business and pumps up the local economy. Campus researchers make new discoveries - say, a way to make computer chips smaller and more durable - and companies form to bring those inventions to the marketplace.
Take UT-Austin, which has spawned a whole telecommunications corridor that includes Dell Computer, Sematech, National Instruments and MCC.
Texas needs another top university for all those intellectual and economic benefits, according to lawmakers, business leaders and college administrators.
Just look at California.
California boasts nine major research universities, six of them public. They blanket the state from the Sacramento area south to San Diego.
Texas has just three schools of national stature, forming a tight triangle: UT in Austin, Texas A&M in College Station, and the private Rice University in Houston.
Private schools such as Southern Methodist University and Baylor University also aspire for national recognition, but state lawmakers are focused on public universities, which are partially funded by taxpayers.
Texas leaders lament that the University of California-Berkeley has more professors who belong to the National Academies - the nation's scientific brain trust - than does the entire state of Texas.
There's a reason the Golden State is out ahead.
In the 1960s, California created a master plan for publicly supported higher education. Campuses were given specific roles and missions. The University of California system would do research, award doctorate degrees and admit the very top students. The California State system would train teachers, give master's degrees and take the top third of students; and the community-college system would enroll everyone else.
The blueprint made clear how California would channel its money and efforts.
Texas follows no such plan. It classifies the seven campuses as "emerging research universities." That means they're not at the level of UT-Austin or Texas A&M, but they have the potential to be.
SATs and Ph.D.s
Becoming a top research university takes quality and quantity.
Quality: The best institutions can be choosy and admit promising students with high SAT scores. From the humanities to the sciences, they have top-notch departments and professors who are leaders in their fields.
Quantity: Top universities compete for, and win, hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants from groups like the National Institutes of Health. They mint hundreds of new Ph.D.s each year. They have aggressive fundraising operations and, consequently, fat endowments.
Each of the seven Texas schools may excel in one or two areas, but they fall short in too many others.
UT-Dallas, for instance, boasts the highest average SAT score of any public university in the state. But while the amount of research done there has climbed steadily, to more than $60 million worth in 2008, UT-Dallas (like the other six contenders) is still dwarfed by the top public schools, which spend an average of more than $500 million a year.
The University of Houston, meanwhile, awarded 239 doctoral degrees in 2007 - the most of the seven contenders. But that's still less than what the nation's top public research universities award in a typical year. And the average SAT scores of incoming UH freshmen are lower than any those at top universities.
Obviously, universities must work themselves to become greater. But the state plays a big part, too, college leaders say.
Consider this glaring discrepancy: The top public research universities across the nation receive twice as many dollars in state support per student as the seven Texas contenders do - an average of about $10,000 per student vs. about $5,000 per student.
Doling out dough
State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, want the state to provide matching dollars to the seven schools so they can hire great professors, do more research and attract more qualified students. Both lawmakers have filed bills to do just that.
"The great thing about this approach is the Legislature doesn't pick winners," said Branch, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. "You've got seven emerging winners that have a shot."
Branch's committee has scheduled a hearing on the issue Wednesday.
By some estimates, it would take $70 million a year above current state funding to elevate just one campus to national research status. Branch said he hopes the Legislature will put $200 million in that fund for the first two years.
The Legislature also would have to agree how to award the money.
The three college presidents in North Texas say all seven schools should compete.
In fact, James Spaniolo at UT-Arlington, David Daniel at UT-Dallas and Gretchen Bataille at UNT have traveled around North Texas together, drumming up support for one or more top research schools here.
"If it comes down to political arm-wrestling as opposed to having a merit-based, even playing field approach, we could end up with nothing," Spaniolo said. "And the loser is not the institutions. The loser is Texas."
"If there were enough money, I'd say that's great, but there's not enough money," said Hance, Texas Tech's chancellor.
Spread the dollars to seven schools seeking national stature, he said, and here's the result: "You will have guaranteed that no one gets to that status."
Michael Bergfield, a junior at UT-Arlington, likes the idea of letting all seven schools compete for money.
"Of course, I want UTA to get more because I go here," he said. But spreading the money around helps all seven schools, and that means helping all the students who go there, he said.
Another possible plus: Even schools that don't reach "tier-one" status first would benefit from some extra dollars and attention.
If lawmakers do decide to create another UT or A&M, they can't do so hastily, experts say.
"It's a big challenge, and it's an important one for the state," said Robert Berdahl, a former president of UT-Austin and chancellor of UC-Berkeley.
Berdahl's concern for Texas, as it tries to elevate more of its campuses: "Without doing it really carefully and thoughtfully ... none of those institutions will possibly come very far, very fast."