Two miles from the site of Super bowl XLV, inside the University of Texas at Arlington’s new 234,000-square foot multi-disciplinary research building, Mario Romero-Ortega, an associate professor of bioengineering, investigates how robotic arms could be made more reliable and lifelike for amputees returning from war.
Down the hall, assistant computer science professor Vassilis Athitsos tinkers with new technology for building interactive sign language dictionaries. The two, who probably would not have crossed paths before the new digs opened up, are discussing a collaboration on communication tools for people with cerebral palsy.
Jim Spaniolo, the president of UT-Arlington, said the university is committed to increasing its engagement with research that “could change the quality of life of many, many people.” But, he said, funding cuts resulting from the state’s $15 billion to $27 billion budget shortfall could slow that momentum.
UT-Arlington already cut $8.3 million from its budget at the state’s blanket request for 5 percent budget cuts in 2010. With more state funding cuts looming, Spaniolo warned that further reductions would compromise the university’s commitment “to provide a high quality academic environment” and specifically threaten its progress toward becoming a national research, or "tier-one," university.
In 2009, a bill authored by state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, provided UT-Arlington and six other up-and-coming schools incentives to boost their research output with that goal in mind. California has three times as many universities recognized among the nation’s top universities for research as Texas — a statistic some find embarrassing, in addition to being a drag on economic development.
Total research expenditures at UT-Arlington jumped to $63.6 million in 2010 from $50.3 million in 2008. Only 11 percent of that research is directly funded by state appropriations, but Spaniolo says the importance of state support — both direct and indirect — cannot be discounted.
Romero-Ortega described it as a “vicious circle.” A university cannot attract the research faculty it needs, he said, “if it is not investing, the facilities are old, there’s no support for students, and because of that the students in the university are not of a high caliber.” He said his project, funded by a $2.2 million grant from DARPA — the Department of Defense’s research and development arm — is “proof of principle” that only when that circle is broken, will federal dollars follow.
Spaniolo credits the tier-one race with bolstering university pride, enrollment and student caliber. Money for one of its key elements, an incentive fund that matches private gifts aimed at research, was left out of the draft budget in the Texas House. Branch says he is “cautiously optimistic” that it will be included in the final version.
Branch and other lawmakers have indicated early support for another round of bonds this session to encourage additional construction. UT-Arlington wants $74.8 million to renovate its life sciences building.
With more higher ed cuts all but inevitable, they might consider themselves lucky just to get that.
“This legislative session and maybe the next session will be a major challenge for us,” Spaniolo said. “But we haven’t changed our vision and our commitment and that’s the basis on which we’re proceeding.”