Tier-One Money Up for Grabs in University Competition

The early results of the latest leg in a key fundraising race for Texas universities seeking tier-one status are in — and the University of Texas at Dallas is in the lead. But there's still more than $1.2 million up for grabs this biennium.

In 2009, lawmakers approved a bill by state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, establishing an ambitious program to allow seven "emerging research universities" ( Texas Tech University, the University of Houston, the University of North Texas, and University of Texas campuses in Dallas, Arlington, San Antonio and El Paso) to compete for extra infusions of cash, with an eye toward increasing the number of public national research universities in Texas (currently, the state can only claim the University of Texas and Texas A&M University).

Part of that bill created the Texas Research Incentive Program, which uses a limited pool of state funds to match large private donations geared toward boosting research at eligible institutions. Gifts of more than $100,000 receive a 50 percent match from the state, those above $1 million get a 75 percent match, and $2 million or more is matched at 100 percent. It was an instant hit, and the $47.5 million in state funds available in the first biennium was almost instantly used up.

The big winners in that round were Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Dallas, which pulled in nearly $21 million and $15 million, respectively. The University of Houston — which has since received tier-one designation from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching — pulled in disappointingly low numbers totaling less than $5 million.

Heading into the last legislative session, many feared that budget cuts would result in the fund being left empty. But lawmakers managed to put more than $34 million back into the fund to be distributed over the recently begun 2012-13 biennium. Much of the money that will be distributed in the first year, fiscal year 2012, are the leftover matches from the oversubscribed 2010-11 biennium. But Branch said new gifts, which will make up the 2013 payouts, have picked up significantly since the legislative session ended.

(Source: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board)

The totals are subject to change as each university closely examines the claims made by their competitors — a review process that representatives of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the state agency that administers the fund, say could take two to three months. But according to the preliminary results, UH appears to have turned things around and is anticipating a distribution of nearly $10 million over the next biennium. "They're the most improved," Branch said.

In an email, University of Houston President Renu Khator told the Tribune, "We could not hope to sustain this strong level of support if we were not doing our part to build one of the nation's premier public research universities." UH is expected to be the first university to gain access to the National Research University Fund, a "prize money" fund created by Branch's initial bill that rewards institutions that have met the state's tier-one criteria.

"Our approach will not change," Khator said. "We will continue to build on our momentum and pursue excellence in all we do."

UT-Dallas remains a frontrunner on the fundraising front. It currently boasts the highest request for matching funds at nearly $13 million over the next two fiscal years. "A lot of people think they've got a bright future and [a] very positive trajectory," Branch said. "The marketplace seems to be indicating that as well."

Match requests are still coming in, and there's still roughly $1.2 million waiting to be claimed. That means there's still time for a school like the University of Texas at Arlington, currently poised to get nothing from the state in fiscal year 2013, to — as Branch says — "put some points on the board."

Kristin Sullivan, a spokeswoman for UT-Arlington, told the Tribune that the school's most significant private gifts in the last year had come in areas other than research — going instead to initiatives like a 7,000-seat event venue — and subsequently weren't eligible for this specific fund. However, she noted that UT-Arlington's research expenditures have more than tripled in the last six years and that the school "expects that trajectory to continue."

Overall, Branch, the roughly $80 million invested in the incentive fund by the state has brought in approximately $120 million in private gifts — a combined total of $200 million for higher education. "We've gotten better than a one-to-one match," he said. "This is sort of the first wave of the fruits of this effort."

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