In the first post in this series, I questioned the rationale for the push to make UTEP a Tier One university. In this second post, I will offer a constructive view of the best way forward for UTEP, in the form of a six-point strategy.
1. Recognize that Tier One status is unachievable for the foreseeable future
It sounds nice, stokes the ego of administrators, and makes politicians look good, but the truth is that even a dedicated push toward Tier One status is very optimistically at best, a decade or more away for UTEP. In every category established by legislation enabling the state’s seven emerging research institutions to achieve National Research University status, UTEP lags behind Texas Tech, the Universities of Texas at Dallas and Arlington, and the University of Houston. UTEP’s research budget would have to double, its output of PhDs at least triple, and its endowment income increase many fold for it to be recognized as a credible Tier One University.
2. Accept that Tier One status is not necessarily the best type of University for El Paso
Even if Tier One were achievable, would it really be that good for El Paso? A Tier One University is highly focused on research, with as many resources as possible channeled toward graduate education and research productivity. That means that funds for undergraduate education take second priority to everything that supports the research effort. It means that faculty are recruited for their ability to obtain research grants instead of their interest in teaching. New faculty at Tier One universities expect high salaries, light teaching loads, and large start-up funds for their research.
To keep teaching loads light and undergraduate expenses low, undergraduates at Tier One universities are subjected to larger class sizes, many of which are taught by part-time faculty. Since mentoring undergraduate researchers is costly both in time and money, faculty are less inclined to direct research projects for undergraduates who survive the first two years of depersonalized education.
Furthermore, community outreach is the lowest priority of an institution focused on raking in as much research funding as possible. Attention to local problems and circumstances is proportional only to the extent that those issues are of interest to national granting agencies. The current emphasis on border security and bioterrorism plays nicely to UTEP’s current strengths, but once the fashions in research funding shift, the Tier One university will shift its focus accordingly.
3. Aspire to become a National Research University with a dual commitment to education and research
Universities are a great asset to the communities in which they are located. They stimulate the local economy and provide enhanced employment and educational opportunities. They promote diversity, raise social awareness, and provide cultural enrichment. This is especially true of major research institutions, which play a particularly important role in stimulating the local economy. For all these reasons, a research university of national stature would be a tremendous asset to El Paso, and should be pursued.
Not all research universities, however, are in the top tier. Most of the benefits cited above are achieved just as well by universities below theTier One level. Some of these objectives, in fact, are better achieved at the Tier Two level. MIT and Caltech are Tier One universities that contribute less to social awareness and cultural enrichment than Boston College or Cal State – Pomona, Tier Two universities in their same respective communities.
UTEP should certainly aspire to be a player on the national stage, including a major research contributor. It deserves to compete with its six sister institutions for the state funding that can be leveraged to lift it to a higher level. But that level doesn’t have to be Tier One. UTEP should aspire instead to be the model of a National Research University committed to excellence in both education and research. It should, in short, aspire to be a great Tier Two university.
Don’t expect your legislator or local elected official to run on a platform of making UTEP an excellent Tier Two University. And don’t expect UTEP’s administration to concede that Tier Two is the best fit for El Paso. “Tier Two” simply doesn’t have the same pizzazz, nor provide the same ego gratification, as “Tier One.” But “National Research University” not only sounds good but is an accurate description of what is both achievable and desirable for UTEP.
To make UTEP an even greater regional asset, the aspiration for national research achievement should be coupled with a dedication to excellence in education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This merges the classical roles of the university as a place where learning accompanies scholarly exploration, and the student is taught not only what is known but how to approach the unknown.
An aspiration such as this means that faculty will have to be recruited not just for their proficiency in research but for their commitment and ability to teach. The best of those faculty will not only be excellent classroom instructors, but skilled at the one-on-one mentoring that undergraduate research projects require.
Involvement of undergraduates in research is something that UTEP has long done well, though the increased pressure for research productivity has lately made inroads into this commendable effort. Those inroads should be reversed, and the commitment to undergraduate research should be elevated to a higher status and rewarded as it once was. The deplorable loss of the three biology professors who devoted themselves equally to research and education, as described in the first post in this series, should never happen at UTEP again.
4. Tighten admissions criteria, but partner with EPCC for maximize student access to higher education
UTEP has to raise its standards for admission, so that students are accepted who are ready for college, able to take advantage of a more rigorous course of study that will promote their ultimate success. Stronger students are faster learners and are better able to take advantage of undergraduate research opportunities. The net effect of admitting stronger students to begin with is a higher retention rate and greater success for UTEP’s students in graduate and professional schools, or whatever else they undertake. This will enhance the reputation of UTEP, raise its stature, and make it more appealing to students of higher quality, thus perpetuating a positive feedback cycle of stronger applicants, higher academic achievement, and greater long-term success.
UTEP’s administration has long justified its open-admissions policy on grounds that it enhances access to higher education. This argument is faulty on two scores. First, admitting more students that fail at a higher rate does neither the student nor the community any good. Secondly, the open-admissions policy at El Paso Community College (EPCC) ensures that every student is given a chance to succeed in college. Late bloomers, students not yet adept in English, and those needing remedial instruction in reading, writing, and math have the opportunity to begin at EPCC, which is better geared to provide the support that these students need. EPCC really is “the best place to start” for many students. UTEP should stop competing with EPCC for freshmen and sophomores, and work harder at ensuring a smooth transition for EPCC students who demonstrate their ability to do college work.
UTEP’s imposition of higher admissions standards doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that UTEP has to become as selective as Tier One universities. Many of the region’s high school graduates who couldn’t get in to Harvard or Princeton or the University of Texas at Austin nonetheless make stellar students, and UTEP should welcome them from the start. A Tier Two university will do fine with Tier Two high school graduates. But even a Tier Two university will falter if half of its freshmen don’t make it through their sophomore year of college.
5. Engage with the community and enhance public outreach
UTEP does a decent job now of pursuing projects and supporting programs that directly affect the lives of El Pasoans. This should be intensified. Because of their need to concentrate their attention and resources on basic research, Tier One universities tend to live up to their image as ivory towers apart from the real world that surrounds them. Universities below Tier One but attuned to their regional environment, as UTEP traditionally has been, are great assets, particularly in a community characterized by relatively lower incomes and educational attainment.
UTEP can be a force for positive change in several areas of particular importance to El Paso. One is in K-12 education. The Collaborative for Educational Excellence that partnered UTEP’s Colleges of Education and Science with both master and aspiring teachers in the region’s school systems was a major effort to link the expertise of college faculty with the dedicated efforts of teachers at the K-12 level, where a love for learning and a habit of academic success has to first be ingrained. Social science research, with the insights it can provide into the unique features of life in an urban, bicultural, bilingual community, should be another priority. Public safety and criminology, public health, and Borderland culture are also areas where UTEP has an opportunity to involve the community not only as subjects, but as benefactors, of its research efforts.
None of this is to diminish the importance of basic research. Even at universities below Tier One, basic research should be at the heart of a university’s mission, not only because knowledge for its own sake is a virtue, but because the practical applications of research can never be completely foreseen. But a major university with a regional emphasis can afford to combine its basic research mission with programs of practical importance and benefit to the community in which it resides, in a way that a Tier One institution seldom can.
6. Start acting like a mature, major university
If UTEP is serious about becoming a major university on the national stage, it should leave behind the trappings of the regional college it once was.
This includes first and foremost, discarding the outmoded and archaic administrative policies geared toward the lower-keyed demands of a primarily teaching institution. Most major state universities have established non-profit corporations to efficiently serve the particular purchasing, accounting, personnel, and travel needs unique to their research communities UTEP should follow suit.
From the beginning, UTEP’s administration has failed to appreciate the importance of reliable funding for Graduate Teaching Assistants at competitive stipends. UTEP loses many excellent prospects who would otherwise come to El Paso because they can get more financial assistance elsewhere.
Emblematic of UTEP’s lack of maturity is its quaint practice of having thousands of undergraduates walk across the stage to shake the President’s hand in graduating classes now grown so large that three separate commencements on the same day are needed to get everyone through the ritual. Most universities the size of UTEP or larger hold commencement ceremonies at the College level, where the number of students and time required to honor them can be kept to a manageable level.
El Paso is blessed with beautiful weather most of the year, making an outdoor baccalaureate service for all graduates in the Sun Bowl on a spring evening or winter afternoon an appropriate and memorable experience. The commencement speaker would only have to give one address (instead of the three now required), and the entire UTEP community could enjoy a final group ceremony that doesn’t stretch on for hours. Then, each undergraduate could receive his or her diploma in smaller ceremonies restricted to the College (Liberal Arts, Engineering, Science, etc.) in which their degree is earned. This is the way it’s done in the big time.
Under President Natalicio’s leadership, UTEP has moved from its regional position as the descendant of Texas Western College to a position of being competitive as a research university on the national stage. At the same time it has tried to retain its regional focus and strong commitment to undergraduate education. Both are worthy objectives that will serve El Paso well, if a balance between the two can be achieved. The point of this post and the one preceding it is that no such balance can be retained if UTEP’s singular objective is to become a true Tier One University. On the other hand, UTEP is fully capable of become a nationally competitive university with a dual commitment to education and research. It needs to become more selective in the students it admits, and recruit faculty with a dual commitment to teaching and research. Its commendable outreach efforts should not only be continued but expanded. And it should adopt the administrative procedures and academic practices of mature, major universities.
The legislation that seeks to boost UTEP and six of its sister universities in Texas to national research status implicitly recognizes that Tier One is out of reach for all of them (with the possible exception of the University of Houston) for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, it seeks to help them all strive toward the next level of at least regional prominence in education and research. UTEP should pursue the opportunities made available by that legislation with vigor. Proclaiming itself on the road to Tier One, however, is neither accurate nor necessary for becoming a home town university of which El Paso can justly be proud.