In 2009, the Legislature designated UTSA, along with six other Texas universities, as emerging research universities able to compete for millions of dollars in funding. The idea is to create more elite research institutions, called Tier One schools, in Texas, thereby creating a knowledge-based economy, high tech businesses and lucrative jobs.
Texas has only three Tier One universities— the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M and Rice—while California has nine and New York has seven.
While no formal, agreed-on definition of a top-tier university exists, such schools typically report at least $100 million in restricted research spending and have doctoral programs in as many as 50 disciplines.
The benchmarks for the seven emerging universities to access state dollars include $45 million in restricted research spending and 200 doctorates conferred in each academic year of the preceding biennium, among other guidelines.
While UTSA has not yet achieved these goals, administrators say the school is on the right path. President Ricardo Romo and John Frederick, provost and vice president for academic affairs, sat down for a chat about Tier One in Romo’s office March 31. Here are excerpts from the conversation, plus a look at what community leaders think about UTSA’s impact on the city, region and state.
What is Tier One for UTSA?
Frederick It’s a tricky question because it’s kind of like fine art. It’s not something that has a set definition or is well defined. It’s kind of in the eyes of the beholder, but I think one thing you can say about fine art and being Tier One is that it really means being excellent in everything you do, whether it’s a researcher in the lab who is going to be doing cutting-edge research and stuff that has a high impact or a teacher in the classroom that’s going to bring the very best instructional quality to our students.
Going toward Tier One should mean something different for each university. In other words, we want to be Tier One for San Antonio. That it’s not that we want to reproduce the University of Texas at Austin or UCLA or some school like that. Here in San Antonio, we want to be the sort of Tier One school that really fits into the community.
What Steps Has UTSA Taken Toward Achieving Tier One?
Romo One thing that we did early on was to develop collaborations and partnerships. And one of the first was with the military, focusing on cyber security after 9/11. We realized that Homeland Security and the Department of Defense were serious about cyber threats to our national security. In 2001, we established the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security at UTSA. It is now a component of UTSA’s Institute for Cyber Security, which was established in June 2007.
We not only made the right moves early on in defense-related research, we also developed a similar strategy when we saw the need for a physics program at UTSA. We took advantage of our great partnership with the Southwest Research Institute to develop the physics program we have here, and also with our Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering.
Frederick I think one of the tangible benefits we’ve gotten out of the cyber security collaboration that you mentioned is we’ve been able to hire some real stars in Ravi Sandhu and Fred Chang that are coming in and making a real difference in terms of the capabilities of the campus and the opportunities for our students.
And I think we’re now seeing some new possibilities with the military in the area of health and trauma and some of those things. I think that’s going to lead to new opportunities for us to hire some great faculty and perhaps create some new programs that not only will be great opportunities for students, but will also serve some needs in the community.
So I have to say that one of the things I find really exciting about being at UTSA is that we’re not just confined to what we generate on the campus. Because we have these great external partners, it sort of opens up the world for us, really gives us greater possibilities.
Romo That’s right. And there are other examples of Tier One-accomplishments. There’s the partnership with CPS Energy and the City of San Antonio for $50 million for sustainable energy research. And the fact that we had two students who were finalists for the Rhodes Scholarship. That was as many or more than anybody else in the state of Texas. That is a sign that we really have been doing well in recruiting and educating our students. I also think that more of our students are staying here to do their master’s and doctoral programs.
Frederick One of the parts of the strategic implementation plan said we really need to focus on our graduate school and getting more graduate students and better graduate students here. And we said in terms of the mix of students that we have on campus, we want to grow the proportion of graduate students that we have to 15 percent or higher. Well, here we are five years shy of the 2016 goal and we’ve already essentially reached that 15 percent mark. So we’re thinking now in terms of it needs to be 17 percent or higher. So our recruitment of students has really paid off and we really achieved our goals.
Romo One of the things that really pleases me about the progress we’ve made in the Tier One competition and creating a sense of excellence is that so many of our students are out there working not only in San Antonio, but beyond. I think we have established an excellent university that prepares young people to be successful in the 21st century economy.
What does it mean for the economy?
Romo Companies looking to locate in San Antonio often say that what attracts them to the city is the fact that UTSA is here and that there is a trained work force. They need problem solvers and critical thinkers. They need individuals who are leaders and know how to make decisions. They need college graduates. And you know what? We have them. Everyone who graduates from here is going to make a contribution to the city and the state.
Frederick Companies often say that one of the big factors that brought them here is the number of graduates who would be potential employees. So you think about the impact we have as a university in attracting some of these important businesses and corporations to come to town—that is huge.
Romo We’re certainly becoming a greater partner with both the business community and civic leaders. We now have more conversations with the mayor and other city leaders about the role of UTSA in terms of the work force preparation. I’m very pleased about that.
What ’s next for us in Tier One?
Romo I was asked by the Legislature about Tier One and I said it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. The school that takes off and says it’s closer to Tier One because it has the highest number of programs or the greater endowment, which is part of the criteria, isn’t necessarily the winner. It’s just like in the marathon. Someone may be ahead of you for 10 or 20 miles, but you might catch them and pass them.
Frederick The criteria for funding for the emerging research universities has all kinds of benchmarks that schools are supposed to reach. I think the danger in some of those criteria is that I think the assumption is that once you meet some of those numbers, that you’re automatically Tier One. But I would caution that those are characteristics of what a Tier One university is, and what we’re trying to build here is really the firm foundation, the building blocks. So that when everything is done, those numbers will happen because we will be Tier One. It’s not that we’ll become Tier One because we hit a couple of those numbers
Is UTSA the underdog?
Romo It’s interesting because we were clearly the underdog when we first began this race. I had a chance to testify before the Legislature and I said we have expanded our Ph.D. programs—we have almost 100 students that will graduate with Ph.D.’s this year. We also had a record amount of grants, including the $50 million from CPS Energy for sustainable energy research, and we had the largest gift ever after Mary E. McKinney, a former student, left us her estate valued at $28 million
So even though we’re initially viewed as an underdog, I believe that UTSA is in a very strong position to be one of the leaders in the state and to be a Tier One institution. It may take five or 10 years for us to become Tier One, and so what? Universities take a long time to build and we’re relatively young. We have more than 80,000 alums and every year we get better. So I’m pleased with where we are right now and I can only say that I’m optimistic that we’re going to achieve Tier One very soon.
Frederick Well, certainly if someone thinks you’re an underdog, that’s an opportunity to surprise them. But it’s hard to categorize us as an underdog anymore.
Romo Well, I will say this. In terms of this city, no one sees us as an underdog. They all see us as a winner.