Leading light of Lone Star State

January 1, 1990

The University of Texas at Dallas is destined for the academic top table, says David E. Daniel.

In the early 1960s, the Dallas-Fort Worth region lacked a major scientific or engineering institution. The mayor of Dallas, along with two partners (the same trio who founded Texas Instruments), set out to correct that deficiency. They began by assembling a large parcel of land and ambitiously creating the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. By 1969, the trio declared the centre and its holdings the site of a future “MIT of the Southwest” and struck a deal with the Lone Star State to create the University of Texas at Dallas, an elite, research-oriented, exclusively PhD-granting institution. Thus UT Dallas’ tale began.

At launch, the institution was a building in the middle of a cotton field housing fewer than 100 academics and doctoral students. Nearby universities opposed it, so much so that in 1990, when UT Dallas asked the state for permission to admit freshmen, the deal hinged on two major concessions calculated to doom the fledgling institution: UT Dallas promised to admit only freshmen with extraordinarily high academic credentials and to offer no programme that would compete with those run by other local universities.

Ultimately, far from dooming it, these restrictions advantaged the university. From the start, UT Dallas students have been the best of the best, and this culture of excellence is our single greatest differentiator today. The second restriction forced us into a multidisciplinary approach before such work was in vogue, inspiring a focus on programmes such as computer science, neuroscience and space science.

The legislation restricting UT Dallas was repealed in 2006, but not much changed, as the university had firmly embraced its identity as a place on the rise via a constant focus on growth and improvement. Our freshman class typically has the highest average SAT score among public universities in Texas. We have expanded from 14,000 students in 2005 to 21,000 today, with research expenditure tripling over the same period. Our goal is to ascend rapidly to the ranks of the world’s best research universities: by any measure, we are enjoying enormous success.

What are the essential factors in our progress? First, our commitment to our mission. UT Dallas’ founders focused on research, technology and their benefit to commerce and society. Today, more than 80 per cent of our degrees are in science, technology, engineering and business. We avoid mission creep.

Next is location. Dallas is one of the world’s largest and most rapidly growing metropolitan areas, with an insatiable appetite for the graduates we produce (as our founders predicted). Our success is critical to the region: among the US’ 10 most economically productive metropolitan areas, only one lacks a top-tier research university – Dallas-Fort Worth. The city urgently needs us to fill this gap – and we will.

Third is our sister institution. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center of Dallas is one of the US’ premier medical research universities and a critical collaborator in rapidly expanding medical research and technology work.

Next is our boldness and agility. Small young institutions are inherently nimble (of necessity) and UT Dallas’ entrepreneurial culture promotes and rewards risk-taking. The institution experimented early with creative fixed tuition policies and introduced cutting-edge, interdisciplinary programmes. This willingness to take risks is a treasured value.

And finally, money. UT Dallas occupies an expensive niche in academia: science, engineering and business, focused on quality and research, costs. We unapologetically charge the highest tuition fees of any Texan public university, yet are named year after year on the “best value” lists. One valuable resource we are able to draw on is the Permanent University Fund. This endowment, managed by the UT System, is derived from oil income. These funds can be used for constructing new facilities and make our ambitious growth plans realistic.

Like all institutions, UT Dallas faces challenges: principally, increasing awareness of the university, expanding its core infrastructure to keep up with enrolment and faculty growth, and raising private funds to support excellence.

Our biggest, most immediate challenge is building new academic buildings on campus. Since 2005, we have started or completed construction on more than $600 million (£340 million) of infrastructure additions: however, needs continue to outstrip even this aggressive programme’s output.

Private fundraising is vital to UT Dallas, as it is to every great US research university. But with a relatively young alumni group, we and our peers in the 100 Under 50 must look to companies, foundations and far-sighted individuals for the majority of our private giving. In time, alumni will play a greater role.

UT Dallas’ future is bright. Our founders got the vision and mission right; the university has upheld that mission and vision; and there’s an urgent local need for us to become one of the world’s great research universities. Success seems assured, and our leadership team’s primary job is making that goal a reality as soon as possible.

David E. Daniel is president of the University of Texas at Dallas.

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