EL PASO – The race to become the next tier one university in Texas has begun for seven emerging research universities now that Governor Rick Perry has signed Texas House Bill 51.
The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), Texas Tech University, University of North Texas, UT San Antonio, UT Dallas, UT Arlington and the University of Houston will compete for millions in research dollars that will transform them into national research universities in Texas.
Though the term “tier one” has no set definition, universities with that designation are institutions that draw millions of research dollars. In the 2008 fiscal year, UTEP received $42 million, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Campus Report Card. “[A definition] I think everyone would agree [for tier one] is a university that has an average annual expenditure for research in the neighborhood of $100 million to $125 million,” UTEP President Diana Natalicio said.
Texas House Bill 51 contains two major pieces of legislation, Natalicio said, the Texas Research Initiative Program (TRIP) and the Research University Development Fund (RUDF). Under the Texas Research Initiative Research Program the state would match every dollar of private gifts of $2 million or more awarded to a university after September 1, 2009.
In addition, the Research University Development Fund allows the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to award at least $1 million for every $10 million to a university if it averages more than $50 million per year in total research expenditures. The board will also award a lesser amount of money to universities that average less than $50 million per year. Matching funds will begin to be available on September 1, 2009.
The “specifics of exactly how this process will work will be defined by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board,” Natalicio said.
Although UTEP is eligible to receive money under the two funds, Natalicio said there is still more that needs to be done. “Having been designated as an emerging tier one University, UTEP already qualifies for the TRIP and RUDF,” Natalicio said. “To compete successfully for available funds, in these two categories, we need to continue increasing both philanthropic gifts and competitive research grants.”
The second part of the bill is the National Research University Fund (NRUF), which will not be distributed for at least five more years, still needs approval by Texas voters in November, and therefore is not a major concern for Natalicio at this time.
“What is really more important now is the first half of the bill,” Natalicio said. “I’m not really focused on the second part of the bill right now because in due course we will get there. What I am really excited and happy about is that the legislature created the pathway for receiving funding.”
To attain money under the NRUF, a university must have at least $45 million in restricted research expenditures for two consecutive fiscal years.
“Restricted research is when you receive money from an agency telling you that you have to spend enough money doing this type of activities toward this contract or grant,” Robert Osegueda, Vice President for Research and Sponsored Projects, said. “UTEP currently receives $27.6 million [in restricted research].” Eligibility to receive $50 million in restricted research ultimately depends on faculty members writing proposals for grants, Osegueda said.
“At the present time if you count the number of people who participate in proposals as principal investigators and co-principal investigators that number is about 300. In some colleges more than 50 percent of the faculty write proposals,” Osegueda said. “One way to get the restricted research expenditures up is to get more people to write proposals, enhance the quality of the proposals that faculty submit, and be more strategic with the proposals you submit. You have to be able to write proposals for those agencies that have lots of money —in other words write proposals requesting larger amounts of money.”
In addition to averaging $45 million in restricted expenditures, the universities will have to meet four of six criteria to be eligible to receive state funding, including awarding 200 doctoral degrees each year.
In 2008, UTEP awarded 35 doctoral degrees, and although Natalicio is not immediately concerned about the NRUF, she is already looking at ways to be able to compete for that money. The university currently has 16 doctoral programs, and UTEP needs to create more PhD programs to award additional doctoral degrees, Natalicio said.
“You can’t produce  doctorates with 16 doctoral programs. We have seven doctoral programs right now in the pipeline in Austin awaiting authorization. We are going to have to be authorized to offer those programs to create conditions for us to produce those graduates,” Natalicio said. “We need more doctoral programs, more doctoral students, and more graduates. It’s going to be a steep curve but I am confident we can get there as long as we get full cooperation from the state coordinating board.”
Attaining more money through grants, gifts and the state would benefit not only the university but also the city. “If we double [our research expenditures], then we double our economic impact. That’s very good for this region,” Natalicio said. “Most of the dollars that we spend at the university have a multiplier of 3.5 in terms of economic impact because the people who get their salaries from the university spend their salaries on cars houses, food and clothes. The university also buys goods and services from companies in the community.”
In addition to the economic impact, creating a tier one institution will allow El Paso to compete with other major cities. “In the 21st century, a major metropolitan area that doesn’t have a major research university will be left along the margin because you simply have to be able to compete in a different kind of economy that is innovation driven. It’s a very different kind of economy than El Paso has been used to and we simply have to step up to that and I think the university is the catalyst.”
El Paso Mayor John Cook also agrees that UTEP’s growth into tier one status would bring greater opportunities to the region. “In order to get to tier one a university needs research that has commercialization potential, which means you can research many types of products and services at the university level with the expectation that they will be able to spin them off into manufacturing, for example,” Cook said. “That ends up helping the economy of the entire city.”
Natalicio believes the greatest beneficiaries of a tier one university would be the students. “It would create a climate that would offer a much broader range of opportunities for everybody from the freshman coming in to the doctoral students,” Natalicio said. “Students, for example, who may not ever participate in a particular laboratory doing a certain kind of research might benefit from the availability of that equipment. The whole campus climate would be enriched by that.”
Natalicio also said that although the worth of a degree at UTEP has gone up in the last 20 years, once UTEP is recognized as a research institute additional value would accrue to all UTEP degrees, and Cook agrees. “Getting tier one status adds to the credibility of the university,” Cook said. “It would make it a university that people will want to attend.”
Natalicio recognizes that there is keen competition for the tier one prize. “It’s like a race on a track,” she said. “We are each in a lane, running toward that tape that says tier one. I am not going to elbow anyone out of the way, and I hope that nobody else is going to try and knock me down. If it is a clean race and it’s a level playing field, UTEP will be highly competitive.”
Natalicio said that in the last 20 years UTEP has gone from about $3 million in annual research expenditures to $50 million. “We are accelerating,” she said, “There is no reason why we can’t double that. There is also no reason why we can’t grow our doctoral programs because we’ve gone form one to 16. We’ve got a lot of momentum.”
Natalicio said she wants people to remember UTEP’s unique history and never underestimate its potential. “UTEP is also much more aggressive than some people understand. I always tell them to remember Glory Road, remember the underdogs,” she said, referring to the 1966 Texas Western team, who went on to win the NCAA National Championship. “Underdogs are always dismissed and underdogs often win. The reason for that is that underdogs have tremendous desire to succeed, and once they’re rolling it’s pretty hard to stop them.”