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Panel Debates Future of Research Universities

A panel of higher education and business executives at the University of Texas at Austin reflected high anxiety about the future of research universities — especially in Texas, which has just three of the nation's top research universities compared to California's nine.

The University of Texas at Austin.

A panel of higher education and business executives at the University of Texas at Austin reflected high anxiety about the future of research universities, especially in Texas.

David Daniel, the president of UT Dallas, began this morning's discussion by noting that Texas has only three universities who are members of the Association of American Universities, a group of five dozen leading research universities in the country. These are: the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Rice University. California, by contrast, has nine, and New York now has six. As a result, Texas lags severely in hauling in federal research and development money, Daniel said.

Rex Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, said that his company relied on the country's great research universities for engineering talent, and he would like to see a halt to the "erosion of technical competitiveness" in the United States.

Tillerson argued that there was a need to "differentiate" in terms of placement of students in universities — i.e., to make sure that the best students go to well-funded, top universities, as opposed to trying to help everyone equally. That is, however, a "difficult social issue to talk about," Tillerson said. He added: "If we want to take advantage of our great research universities, we cannot burden them with remedial education." 

Michael Brown, a Nobel Laureate who is a professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, lauded the national research-funding model in place since the second World War, when the federal government built up the National Science Foundation and began pouring money into research. "That model is apparently under attack," he said.

Brown also said that he worried that in the United States today there is "almost fear of new knowledge. People are afraid to believe in evolution for example." He argued that the country needs a way to galvanize young people the way Sputnik did a few generations ago: "We need a national goal that will focus us, instead of [inventing] the next Facebook." Energy independence in 10 years, for example, would be a worthy goal, he said.

Moderator Larry Faulkner, the former president of UT-Austin, said that since the time of Sputnik, excitement about the sciences among young people has dissipated. And he, too, wants more funding for the great universities. "I have felt that in the current world that we have paid so much attention to open the door of opportunity and not enough to rewarding people who walk through the door," he also said.

Ray Bowen, the chairman of the National Science Board and the former president of Texas A&M, said that Texas faced a "unique problem," because many of our brightest students go out of state as a result of the state's lack of research universities.

Daniel, the UT Dallas president, said that who would provide the funding for universities — the state or tuition — was a crucial question going forward. The "biggest disappointment" of his lifetime, he said, was the gradual shift of considering higher education as an individual benefit rather than a public good. His biggest fear, he said, is that in another 20 years, state funding would hit zero — and unless state universities figure out an alternative funding model, all the top research universities will be private.

The panel was convened by the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas.

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