Sunday, September 20, 2009

Universities look for boost to top tier

UTSA weighs merger as plan to increase status

Aug. 31, 2009

SAN ANTONIO — When Ricardo Romo became president of the University of Texas at San Antonio a decade ago, he resolved to transform the sleepy commuter campus into a premier research university.

Today, the university is one of Texas' fastest growing. While it is shedding its commuter campus label by attracting top students and professors, the goal of joining the ranks of top-notch research universities remains decades away.

That reality has prompted San Antonio lawmakers and community leaders to float the idea of merging UTSA with the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, a move that could catapult the combined institution to the top of the heap among Texas universities vying for the distinction.

After years of urging, state lawmakers passed a bill this spring that lays out a pathway to flagship status and a pot of money for seven emerging research institutions, including UTSA, UT-El Paso and the University of Houston.

But in keeping with the history of higher education in Texas, the terms of competition seem to favor wealthier schools, once again short-changing South Texas and borderland institutions that serve a large population of minority students.

But merging UTSA with the health science center would give the combined institution significant firepower. UTSA's federal research spending would jump from $22 million per year to a combined $117 million, marching the institution to the front of the line for receiving money under the state's flagship bill. It would also help San Antonio compete outside of Texas, where most top research universities include a medical school.

“We would be the next Tier One. No question about that,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

The decision, however, rests with UT regents. At the moment, it's not on their radar, said Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT System and former president of the UT Health Science Center.

Mergers are risky, Cigarroa said. Regents would need a compelling reason to make that move, and it would come with no guarantee that the combined institution would rocket to Tier One status.

“Tier One status is not only a numbers thing, it is a cultural issue where you garner a national reputation. And that takes time,” Cigarroa said.
Stacking the deck

Often dubbed Tier One, a reference to U.S. News & World Report's eponymous college ranking system, there is no uniform definition for a premier research university. At a minimum, it means spending $100 million annually on research, having strong graduate and PhD programs and the ability to recruit outstanding faculty.

In the upper echelon, it means acceptance into the Association of American Universities, an elite club of 62 top-flight research universities in the U.S. and Canada.

In Texas, only UT Austin, Texas A&M University and Rice University are members of that club: California counts nine, New York, six.

California envy became a rallying cry in Texas in support of the so-called Tier One bill, meant to cultivate Texas' next flagship.

By 2012, the bill could dole out around $212 million each year to research universities using a convoluted matrix of criteria, according to the Coordinating Board. But one pot of money is still empty, and another is contingent upon a constitutional amendment to go before voters on Nov. 3.

An initial bill crafted by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, laid out an even-handed map to Tier One that had the backing of all seven presidents.

But Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, filed a competing bill that set a much higher bar for tapping state funds, including amassing a $400 million endowment or awarding more than 200 doctoral degrees per year.

UTSA awards 61 doctorates a year, and its endowment is about $56 million.

Critics say Duncan's criteria favored his hometown university, Texas Tech, and the University of Houston. The final bill is a combination of the two.

“Some wanted to stack the deck in favor of a few universities,” said Joaquin Castro. “We tried to get the final bill as even as possible.”

The most immediate incentive involves a state match for private gifts of at least $2 million. A lesser match is provided for smaller gifts. But that does not favor UTSA or UTEP, where $2 million gifts are rare.

According to Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, that's no accident.

Texas has historically shortchanged South Texas and border universities, Shapleigh said, and under- funded higher education as whole.

“When Lubbock has 60 Ph.D. programs, and the 5 million people who live in border counties combined have 50, that tells the story,” Shapleigh said.

Shapleigh has asked Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to support a plan to funnel extra money to disadvantaged institutions, but Dewhurst declined, citing increases for university operations and financial aid over the past few years.

In turn, Shapleigh pointed to a state survey showing Texas spends an average of $5,000 per student at emerging research universities, compared with $12,000 at similar institutions in other states.

“In Texas, Tier Ones should be called Potemkin U — all is a façade without the funding needed to compete for faculty,” Shapleigh said.
No easy task

Charles Miller, former chairman of the UT board of regents, is tired of hearing about how badly Texas is doing.

“It undersells how good we are and makes us sound like beggars. We are not,” Miller said.

Despite a state funding disadvantage, Texas competes pretty well for federal research dollars, Miller said, aided by world-class powerhouses such as UT's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

But in Texas, health science centers are not attached to universities, leaving them out of important rankings and making it harder for standalone academic universities to compete nationally.

At the University of California, San Diego, for instance, 36 percent of the university's $2.5 billion budget comes from medical center and medical group revenues. At UTSA — which is roughly the same age and has the same student enrollment — 41 percent of the $375 million budget comes from student tuition and fees.

UC San Diego climbed its way into the crème de la crème in just over 20 years of its founding; UTSA won't get there for another 15 to 30 years, according to Romo.

That yawning gap is reason enough to at least explore a merger, Miller said.

“I don't think there is a conclusive answer, I just think it is time to study it (again),” Miller said.

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