For over two years now, the easiest throwaway line in El Paso politics has been an enthusiastic endorsement of UTEP’s drive to become a Tier One university. As a former faculty member and department chair at UTEP, I have an intimate acquaintance with the issue. My experience at UTEP, as well as at other, actual Tier One universities, has left me with a more nuanced view of what the University and the politicians who control its fate ought to be striving for.
The Great Leap Forward
Make no mistake – I strongly endorse UTEP’s drive to become a university with a strong research focus. Not only does this provide a more envigorating environment for students, it stimulates the local economy and enhances the community in all the ways that the politicians say it will.
I was recruited to chair the Department of Biological Sciences in 1991, with a mandate to move that Department in a more modern direction. This was all part of a visionary plan by UTEP’s recently new President, Diana Natalicio, to move the university beyond its roots as primarily an undergraduate teaching college. UTEP had only two doctoral programs at the time, with a third (in Psychology) in the works. The infrastructure for research was marginal, and administrative practices were cumbersome and inefficient for competitive research efforts.
The Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality
Biology was slated to get the fourth doctoral program at UTEP, leveraged by a large grant from the National Institutes of Health that created the Border Biomedical Research Center. From the beginning, it was clear that UTEP’s administration had a poor understanding of what it would really take to transform a slow-paced, regional, undergraduate institution into a truly competitive research university. Over a decade of momentum was wasted while UTEP, lacking anyone prior to the present Provost who had been an administrator at a Tier One institution, gradually came to grips with what it would truly take to achieve the status of a national research university.
As one example, the budget for Graduate Teaching Assistants – an indispensible tool for recruiting quality graduate students and easing the teaching loads on faculty driven to compete for research grants – remained level in the College of Science from 1994-1999, when the big push for more doctoral programs was underway. In addition, purchasing, personnel, and other procedures remained archaic and unresponsive to the needs of researchers, who required the ability to get supplies quickly and recruit people with specialized skills.
Today, the picture has improved dramatically. An unprecedented building program is vastly expanding the infrastructure for research at UTEP, and administrative attitudes and procedures are much more enlightened about what it truly takes to advance to the next level. But the rhetoric from UTEP and politicians alike continues to outstrip the reality.
UTEP’s Place in the Race to the Top
The minimal traditional definition of a Tier One University is one at which research funding exceeds $100 million dollars per year. In 2008, the latest year for which information is available from the Coordinating Board for Higher Education in Texas, UTEP was receiving about $48 million for research annually. This is barely 9% of what the University of Texas at Austin took in, and less than the research budget for UT-Arlington ($50M), Texas Tech ($53M), or the University of Houston ($84M).
Other characteristics of Tier One include a substantial number of doctoral programs, a large endowment, and highly selective admissions standards for undergraduates. While UTEP’s doctoral programs have multiplied rapidly, it still lags well behind other Texas state universities below Tier One. UT-Austin conferred 890 PhDs in 2008. Comparable numbers were 262 by the University of Houston, 221 by Texas Tech, 153 by UT-Arlington, and 61 by UT-San Antonio. UTEP awarded only 35 doctoral degrees that year, less than 4% of the figure for a true Tier One institution, and only an eighth of the number awarded by the University of Houston, not yet considered a Tier One University.
UTEP’s administration clings to the notion that it can become a Tier One institution while maintaining essentially an open admissions policy (allowing anyone with a high school diploma and minimal academic credentials to enroll). UTEP’s acceptance rate is close to 90%, meaning that 9 out of 10 students who apply are admitted – a large percentage of whom are not ready for college, as indicated by the massive number of “developmental” sections of English and math offered, at a level so elementary that they don’t earn college credit. UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, Texas Tech, the University of Houston, and, of course, UT-Austin all have more selective admissions standards than does UTEP. Resources directed at remedial instruction are obviously not available for the support of research.
The argument being made here is not that UTEP is a weak university, unworthy of higher aspirations. On the contrary, seeking a larger role in the nation’s research effort is a worthy goal, and UTEP has made significant strides in that direction. And in fairness, UTEP has been on this track for a lot shorter time than institutions like the University of Houston and Texas Tech, so it makes sense (and is no indictment) that UTEP has a long way to go. But that is the real point. UTEP is nowhere near ready for prime time at the Tier One level, and won’t be for at least a decade. Administrators and politicians who talk as though Tier One is just around the corner are not only implying an overly-optimistic time line, but are short-circuiting a thoughtful discussion on what the university’s ultimate objective ought to be.
The Nature and Cost of Tier One
A Tier One University in the United States is one in which research is the supreme mission of the institution. Undergraduates are attracted to them by their status, and tend to do well because they are preselected for success; but undergraduates are far less important to such a university, and are accorded a smaller proportion of its resources, because graduate education and research are its priorities.
Research and graduate education are very expensive. All Tier One universities have therefore come to rely excessively on federal granting agencies, like the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and NASA, to foot the bill. The research grants awarded by those agencies are extremely competitive, so faculty are recruited for their ability to get grants, not teach undergraduates. They tend to come from Tier One institutions themselves, where teaching loads are light and undergraduates are the lowest priority. They arrive at their new faculty appointments expecting to have minimal teaching duties, concentrated at the graduate level. They also arrive expecting large start-up funds and commanding high salaries.
With fewer faculty available for teaching undergraduates, and with more money being poured into the graduate and research programs, undergraduates are turned over to low-paid part-time instructors. Thus, at a Tier One university, in the sciences and other basic courses like math and English, undergraduates will seldom encounter a full-time faculty member until well past their freshman year. That trend at UTEP is well underway – in 1992, over 70% of freshman biology courses were taught by full-time faculty members. This coming fall, full-time faculty have been assigned to only 20% of those courses.
The pressure to perform in research is relentless at a Tier One University, as would be expected of an institution dependent on highly competitive grants for its financial viability. In the late ‘90s, three professors in Biology received a national award for their creative design of freshman biology labs. All of them had active, funded research programs, but not at a level deemed high enough by a new Dean of Science bent of demonstrating his toughness, so two were denied tenure and the third left the university in disgust. Three of UTEP’s finest teachers were replaced by higher-priced professors who expected to have as little contact with undergraduates as possible.
A Matter of Semantics
Recognizing the different criteria used by different parties to define a Tier One university, the language of the legislation that seeks to boost seven state universities in Texas to the next level avoids the term “Tier One” altogether, referring instead simply to “National Research Universities.” This strategy implicitly recognizes that true Tier One status for most of the state’s universities will be out of reach for a long time to come.In the meantime, it is well and good for all of them to strive toward a more vigorous research posture, without necessarily striving for an unrealistic goal.
This common sense approach, conceived by State Senator Judith Zaffarini (D-Laredo), principle author of the legislation, is routinely disregarded by UTEP’s administration and El Paso politicians, who continue to talk about achieving “Tier One” with little understanding of what a true Tier One university is like and what it will take to get there.
What Does El Paso Want Its Hometown University to Be?
“Tier One” sounds nice. It feeds the ego of administrators, and provides politicians with low-risk, feel-good rhetoric. But is it really what El Paso needs?
If and when UTEP becomes a bona fide Tier One University, most high school graduates in El Paso will not be able to go there, and those that do get past the high selectivity barriers of a Tier One institution will see relatively few of the university’s prestigious professors until they get into graduate school.
UTEP’s admirable record of engaging undergraduates in research will decline, as the relentless emphasis on research productivity will make professors increasingly reluctant to devote any time or resources to undergraduates that could lead to more research productivity (hence research dollars) by directing that focus to graduate students and post-docs instead.
UTEP’s admirable ability to focus on Border issues will probably survive to a significant degree, but even that will be compromised by the pressure to chase after the dollars available for the latest trends and fashions in research – “translational” research and bioterrorism being the current examples in biomedicine.
Undergraduate education in most core courses will be relegated to very large sections taught by part-time faculty or foreign teaching assistants with a marginal ability to speak English. And certain experiences formerly available to undergraduates at UTEP – one of the features that made an undergraduate education at UTEP an exceptional experience – will be a thing of the past, as the drive for research dollars crowds out the ability to be innovative at the undergraduate level and to focus on individual students.
In the second part of this series, I will offer my constructive suggestions for what UTEP should become, as an alternative to the overblown drive toward Tier One.