Logical to make UH our next flagship university

by William H. Cunningham
Dr. Cunningham retired as chancellor of the University of Texas System on June 1.

As I conclude 15 years as a higher education CEO - seven as president of the University of Texas at Austin and eight as a chancellor of the UT System - I am struck by the rapid advances of Texas colleges and universities in several areas.  However, I am also mindful of several items of unfinished business - including the need to enhance the state's "flagship" or "tier one" universities and to increase the number of institutions at this level.  Certainly the University of Houston ought to receive increased state funding so that it can achieve this status.

Thanks to the commitment of scores of state officials and friends of higher education, one of the most gratifying accomplishments for institutions across the state is that the Legislature has found it possible to increase state appropriations to bring most universities up to the level of peers in the 10 most populous states.  This is the case for regional and comprehensive universities, but unfortunately it is not the case for the state's two flagship research universities - the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.  Measured by state appropriations per student, for example, UT Austin is $1,500 behind the average for public flagship institutions in the 10 largest states and $7,100 behind the University of California at Berkeley.

Somehow we have not been able to communicate to the people of Texas the great value of such institutions - as centers of advanced instructional, research and public service programs, as competitors for federal and private research grants, and as engines of economic growth.  More than anything else, the public should understand that flagship institutions offer superior classroom and laboratory experiences that provide intellectual challenge even for the very brightest students.

Some people in Texas do not want to hear about the value of such institutions because of their "elitist" qualities.  The anti-elitist factions seem to be content with state support for undergraduate and master's programs of average quality - programs that they deem good enough to meet the needs of the average student - while having relatively little interest in supporting top-quality doctoral and professional programs.

The truth is that UT Austin and Texas A&M are in many ways elitist.  They offer the very best educational services to the very best students.  They are definitely not the right place for everyone, yet they are essential as centers of opportunity for the brightest students all across the state.  At the same time, Texas is producing more highly talented students than can be adequately served.  This means Texas is saying that it does not have a place for many of its best students, those who strive to be better than average and to reach the highest levels of achievement.

The challenge facing Texas related to flagship universities is, therefore, twofold.  We need, first, to increase the funding of the two current flagship universities to bring them up to the level of their peers in other states.  After that, we need to provide appropriate funding for the development of additional flagships.  California has seven public tier-one flagship universities.  The people of Texas deserve, at the very least, two more institutions of this level if they are to have access to the quality of education that they deserve.

The University of Houston is, unquestionably, ready for the move to the top tier.  In many areas - from its physics research to its creative writing programs - the university is already competitive with the best institutions in the nation.  With its strong academic and administrative leadership, the university is fully capable of assuming an enhanced mission on behalf of the people of Texas.  Enhanced state funding is needed to move the university fully to the next level.

There is a popular impression that the various higher education systems in Texas are fierce rivals, not only on the football field but also as competitors for state funding and academic advancement.  Why would the chancellor of the University of Texas System be advocating so strongly that a "rival" institution be raised to flagship status?

First, the idea of rivalries among higher education institutions has been exaggerated.  We compete vigorously in many ways, but we also share the same goals - to expand educational opportunity for the citizens of Texas, to explore the frontiers of knowledge, to contribute to the social, cultural and economic health of our state.

Second, it is clear that Texas needs more than two flagship institutions in order to serve the needs of the state.  The rapidly growing population demands more educational opportunities of the highest caliber.  And if Texas is to be competitive in the information-based economy and the global marketplace, it must have a highly educated work force and must cultivate university and industry collaborations of the most sophisticated type.

Third, both UT Austin and Texas A&M would benefit from additional flagship institutions because of the increased opportunities for joint research projects, academic interchanges and synergistic collaborations of all types.

Achieving the state support necessary for the expansion that I envision will be a formidable task.  It is essential, first, that the underfunding of UT Austin and Texas A&M be eliminated.  It would not make sense to try to fund new flagship institutions until the state has appropriately funded the two current flagships.  After that, the state needs to make a long-term commitment to significantly increased resources for new flagships.  None of this will be easy, but it is in the best interest of Texas.

I have spoken so far only of the state's general academic institutions.  It is important also to recognize that Texas is blessed with a diverse group of outstanding academic health centers that are in the top tier nationally among medical institutions.

Houston is the home of two of these institutions - UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the UT Health Science Center at Houston.  M.D. Anderson is universally recognized as one of the nation's top two centers for cancer care, research, education and prevention.  (And that means it is among the top two in the world, as well.)  The Health Science Center is making a dramatic contribution to research and patient care across a wide range of health issues.  One of its most exciting new ventures is a collaboration between its Institute for Molecular Medicine and the Texas Heart Institute.

Whether in the academic or health arenas, Texas higher education has made dramatic advances in recent years and is positioned for even greater contributions to Texas - from expanding opportunity to enhancing the quality of life to diversifying the economy - as we move into the new century.  Houston has played a central role in the achievements of the recent past and, with wise new investments of public resources, is certain to be one of the leaders in higher education in the future.

This editorial was originally published in the Houston Chronicle on Friday, June 2, 2000 (Section A, page 41, in the Outlook section).