3 names, big goals for UTD; With president decision ahead, officials aspire to gain top research status

by HOLLY K. HACKER
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
November 8, 2004 Monday

What do two chemists and a heart surgeon have in common?

They represent the University of Texas at Dallas' hope for the future: an evolution from a strong regional campus to a nationally recognized research university. The three men are finalists for president of UTD, a job that Franklyn Jenifer is vacating after 10 years at the Richardson university. In that time, UTD, best known for its science, engineering and management programs, has grown from 8,500 students to more than 14,000.

But in the world of academia, it is still a relatively small campus that lacks the reputation of larger, better-funded universities with robust research programs. Now, supporters aspire to make UTD a "tier-one" research university, an MIT of the Southwest. That takes more renowned professors, millions of extra research dollars and a first-class president.

It's a tough job, made even tougher by competition across the state. Several other public universities also have tier-one dreams. So the next leader of UTD will have to build up and expand programs, lure researchers and students and raise money - and there's only so much to go around.

The three finalists are John Baldwin, associate provost for health affairs at Dartmouth College and a surgery professor at Dartmouth Medical School; Thomas Barton, a chemistry professor at Iowa State University and director of the Ames National Laboratory; and Gary Schuster, a chemistry professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and dean of its science college.

They all possess the qualifications that the presidential search committee sought for UTD: stellar scientific credentials and administrative experience at top universities. All three candidates visited UTD recently and met with students, professors and community leaders. In the next two weeks, they'll interview with governing regents of the University of Texas System, who have the final say on who gets the job.

The regents expect to name the new leader this month, with a starting date of sometime next year. The new president is expected to be much more than just the face and voice of UTD. The regents are looking for a top decision-maker, priority-setter and fund-raiser.

"In a way, it's the same reason the president of the U.S. is so important," said Bob Stern, head of the geosciences department at UTD. "His agenda is the one that gets followed, within the limitation of fiscal and legal practicalities."

A shared agenda

UTD and other Texas universities are grappling with fiscal constraints. Ten years ago, more than half of UTD's money came from the state; now it's less than 30 percent. Last year, the state ordered all public universities to cut their budgets by 7 percent. For the coming two years, universities must shrink their budgets again.

Dr. Stern said UTD's next leader "is going to be very handicapped because of the financial realities of the state and the fact there are a whole lot of other presidents pushing their agendas."

UTD's main agenda - becoming a national research university - is shared by the UT campuses in Arlington, El Paso and San Antonio. The University of North Texas, Texas Tech and the University of Houston all aim for "tier-one" status, too.

The UT System defines a tier-one university as one spending more than $100 million a year on research. UTD now spends about a third of that. A recent consultant's report suggested how UTD can reach its goal: hire more professors, add new degree programs, enroll top-notch graduate students, raise more money and keep working with nearby businesses and universities.

Qualifications

The three candidates have different background and strengths. Dr. Baldwin's medical career has taken him across the country.

"Professor Baldwin has a medical background but also a very broad liberal arts and science background. He is also from this area, and that's a great strength," said Murray Leaf, an anthropology and political economy professor at UTD who sits on the presidential search committee.

Dr. Baldwin stressed his experience in raising money. During a visit to UTD, he told an audience, "Your next president needs to be an enthusiastic and accomplished fund-raiser. ... I've raised a lot of money for a lot of years."

Dr. Leaf said Dr. Barton's work at Ames National Laboratory, which is owned by the Department of Energy and managed by Iowa State University, would fit UTD's mission well.

"He has experience in these large federal labs, which is very unusual," Dr. Leaf said. He added that Dr. Barton has a strong background in material science, an area UTD would like to develop. "My background is appropriate for this job. I've been in one aspect or another of academia my entire life. If I look back at my career, it almost seems as if I've been training from the beginning for a position such as this," Dr. Barton said.

The third finalist, Dr. Schuster, said he believes his experience at Georgia Tech and the University of Illinois has prepared him for a similar task at UTD.

Dr. Leaf said that Dr. Schuster "has produced a kind of growth in interdisciplinary programs that's very like what we've been trying to do."

Each candidate voiced optimism about UTD's future. "I think in the right environment, with the right resources and right leadership, UTD has an opportunity really to make it to the next level," Dr. Schuster said.

High expectations

Evan Jones, a senior majoring in business administration, said he hopes the next president will make UTD a more well-rounded university known for liberal arts and other nonscientific areas. He said he also hopes that as UTD expands its research power, the new president won't let undergraduate teaching suffer by pushing a "publish-or-perish" agenda among faculty members. "If there's undue pressure on the professors, then I don't think it's fair to them," Mr. Jones said.

Dr. Stern said that although UTD's new president will set priorities, he can't build up the university single-handedly. He said the state also needs a master plan for higher education.

"People can succeed where there's a framework that's conducive to success," Dr. Stern said. "Maybe it's expecting too much if that framework isn't there."

E-mail hhacker@dallasnews.com