Sunday, October 04, 2009

Proposition 4 would open $500 million fund to 7 Texas universities

BY HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Michigan and Ohio State. Indiana and Purdue. UT-Austin and Texas A&M.

They're not just college rivals – they're among the country's best research universities. And more Texas campuses could join that esteemed mix if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November, supporters say.

Proposition 4 would let seven schools – including UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas and the University of North Texas – tap into a half-billion-dollar fund to help them become research powerhouses.

The campaign for Proposition 4 has geared up in recent weeks. A group called Texans for Tier One is led by former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and James Huffines, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents.

No organized opposition has emerged. The Texas House and Senate both voted unanimously to put the measure on the ballot.

Supporters say the measure won't cost taxpayers an extra dime because the money is already in an old account that was supposed to reach $2 billion but has sat dormant for several years. The state created the account, called the Higher Education Fund, to aid campuses. This change would allow the universities to access the money sooner, if they make progress toward becoming so-called Tier One universities.

Schools would have to meet five out of seven quality standards, such as awarding 200 doctoral degrees a year and having a $400 million endowment, before receiving any money.

Besides the three North Texas campuses, the other aspiring Tier One schools are Texas Tech, the University of Houston, UT-El Paso and UT-San Antonio.

"This will give us a chance to compete," said Kent Hance, chancellor of the Texas Tech System.

Economic engines

Texas college leaders say they're not just competing with themselves – they're competing with the likes of California, New York and Massachusetts, which all have more top research universities. (Texas has three: UT-Austin, Texas A&M and the private Rice University). They say great universities don't just draw great minds – they are economic engines that benefit the whole region.

And they say that Texas suffers a net loss of thousands of students each year to major state schools elsewhere, such as the University of Oklahoma, Louisiana State University and the University of Arkansas.

The measure aims to create an environment in Texas that would spawn more top-level universities and recruit the nation's top-notch researchers.

Some professors and Web sites have raised the argument that the Tier One push could encourage universities to strive for research at the expense of teaching undergraduates. But others say bringing top researchers has a trickle-down effect that benefits undergraduates – they bring more money and the strong graduate students who help the campus.

The proposed fund is part of a wide-ranging bill the Legislature approved this year to build up more Tier One campuses. In addition to putting Prop. 4 before voters, the bill set up a separate Texas Research Incentive Program. It provides $50 million in matching state funds over two years. Universities compete for the money by securing private gifts. On the first day that fund was available, the universities tallied enough money to max it out.

Meeting standards

If approved by voters, the new fund probably wouldn't be tapped for several years because none of the universities currently meets the standards. Based on three criteria – research spending, endowments and doctoral degrees awarded – Houston leads the pack, followed by Texas Tech and UT-Dallas. But the state still has to define the other criteria: the quality of faculty, graduate programs and entering freshmen.

Each campus would love to be the first to join the elite ranks of UT-Austin, Texas A&M and Rice. But that can take a decade or more, plus hundreds of millions of dollars and massive recruiting efforts to woo award-winning faculty.

The schools have presented a united front, with presidents of all the universities supporting the opening of the competition to all seven schools rather than anointing one or two.

"Within the next 10 to 15 years, North Texas can have two or even three national research universities," UTA president Jim Spaniolo told campus supporters last month. No matter who gets there first, he said, "all three will have a profound impact on the economy and life of our region and state."


What it would do

Amend the constitution to create a fund to go toward helping emerging research universities in Texas work to become top-notch research universities. The new fund, to be called the National Research University Fund, would be shifted from an existing state higher education fund of about $500 million.

Arguments for:

•Having more Tier One universities would expand educational opportunities available to Texas students and keep more of them in the state.

•Top research universities are the best way to develop a highly skilled workforce, especially in the sciences, engineering and professional fields that are critical to economic success.

•With 24 million people and only two public Tier One universities, Texas is at a disadvantage in attracting and retaining top talent and drawing research and venture capital investment to the state.

Arguments against:

•In this time of limited state dollars, Texas should open the National Research University Fund only to institutions that are closest to attaining Tier One status.

•If there's urgent need to develop more nationally competitive research universities, it makes more sense to target fewer than seven institutions.

•The amendment does not include a sunset provision, so progress could be assessed periodically to see if this plan is actually creating more Tier One research universities as intended.

Important dates:

•Monday – Last day to register to vote

•Oct. 19-30 – Early voting

•Nov. 3 – Election Day

SOURCE: League of Women Voters of Texas

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