The Movement of Texas Tech to Tier One Status Should Preserve the University's Best Qualities
“From its very beginning, the Texas Tech University (TTU) community has had a sense of destiny and the impact it would have on Texas and the world. Thus, from a start as a small technological college in 1923 and evolving through the transition to university status in 1969, TTU has become one of the state's largest and finest comprehensive research universities. The Texas Tech community's sense of destiny could not be any more important than it is in 2010, given the literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the university has to forge its future as it seeks national research university status here in Texas – while on its way to becoming a great public research university.”
—Making it possible . . .
Guy Bailey* and Bob Smith**
The quest of Texas Tech University (TTU) for National Research University (NRU) or Tier One status could come to fruition in the near future. Indeed, we should soon know about the possible certification of NRU status by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). In the meantime, we benefit from considering the transition. How might the university change in its culture and day-to-day operations? What will happen to already strong characteristics of TTU, such as high-quality undergraduate programs? What possible disadvantages might loom, as we become a public research university of note?
A Once-in-a-lifetime Period of Change
Much has been written about TTU’s transition to Tier One status as a result of House Bill 51 (HB51), passed by the Texas Legislature in 2009. The rationale for the tenets of HB51 along with its enabling characteristics and positive consequences are well documented in the university’s 2010-2020 Strategic Plan (Making it possible . . .). However, what has been less discussed is the “feel” of the university once it becomes a Tier One institution.
In prognosticating such a transition we draw upon personal experiences along with intelligence obtained from colleagues at well-established Tier One institutions. The two of us have studied or served – as faculty members and administrators – at arguably some of the best public research universities in the United States, including Texas A&M and the Universities of Alabama, Connecticut, Iowa, Tennessee, and Texas at Austin, among others. Thus, we have observed first-hand the climate, culture, and intellectual prowess of highly touted research universities. We also have seen the dark side of greatness that we will comment upon at the end of this essay.
Now, our experiences are not unique. You will find many Texas Tech faculty members and administrators who have studied at, or come from Tier One institutions, and their testimony should reinforce our characterizations. If not, we would like to hear from them.
Tier One institutions have the “feeling of greatness” in all that they do, particularly with respect to the quality and accomplishments of faculty members, students, and staff. Great research universities are also characterized by significant numbers of high-quality graduate programs, especially at the doctoral level, along with graduate student populations that are typically in excess of 25 percent of total student populations. And, of course, notable research universities are at the forefront of research, scholarship, and creative work – whether that work involves musical compositions, plays, works of art, or great artistic performances. In general, the fruits of Tier One university research and creative endeavors change the way others view and think about our human experience and the natural world. Overall, Tier One campuses teem with intellectual activities and excitement. Academic pursuits are at the core of campus life – including that of students.
Once in a while, it is good to step back and think about a university’s vision statement. The one crafted as a part of the TTU 2010-2020 strategic planning process captures well what we “should look like” as a Tier One institution: Texas Tech is a great public research university where students succeed, knowledge is advanced, and global engagement is championed. The student success clause was positioned first purposefully and serves as a reminder of a core element of Tier One life.
Building on a Strong Undergraduate Education Tradition
A popular misconception among some Americans is that high-quality research is antithetical to outstanding undergraduate instruction and learning. But don’t assert that message to an accomplished graduate of any top-tier public research institution such as Iowa State University or the University of Washington. Rather, the opportunities to work with and learn from notable faculty members, to select from a broad range of baccalaureate programs, and to engage in a range of “active learning” options all represent notable advantages of undergraduate pursuits at Tier One institutions. Couple these characteristics with Texas Tech’s long-term commitment to student-centered undergraduate education, and you perceive a bright future for the university’s undergraduate programs.
We do not wish to imply that all is perfect undergraduate-wise at TTU. We have a way to go in further developing and supporting active learning options for undergraduates, including service learning and internships, study abroad, and undergraduate research – across all scholarly and creative areas. Indeed, we look forward to the day when all Texas Tech graduates can claim they have had one or more active learning experiences while completing their baccalaureate degrees. Still, we are better off than many emerging research universities (not necessarily those in Texas) in that TTU’s commitments to excellence in undergraduate education have been demonstrated over decades – from a significant involvement of tenured and tenure-track faculty in lower- and upper-division coursework to an ethos for student-faculty interactions – and shaped by legendary kindness and hospitality from faculty and staff members alike. Thus, Texas Tech is poised well to build on an excellent past in undergraduate education, and with recent improvements in general education and further commitments to active learning opportunities for students, we should feel good about the first portion of our vision as we move to Tier One.
The remaining element of our vision statement, involving global outreach, also is being pursued vigorously through active collaborations of faculty members in worldwide and enhanced study abroad opportunities for students, made possible in part by the excellent leadership of Ambassador Tibor Nagy and his staff based in the International Cultural Center and the Office of International Affairs. We can be proud, for example, of TTU’s center in Seville, Spain, where students combine studies of language and culture with learning in their own disciplines, all provided by Texas Tech faculty who direct semester-long and multiple-week summer programs. The benefits of such study extend not only to arts and sciences students but also to those in professional programs. Imagine! The largest single contingent of students in the TTU Seville summer programs in 2010 was from the Whitacre College of Engineering. But, TTU study abroad options are not restricted to the center in Spain. Through a variety of agreements with the international higher education community, TTU faculty-led programs are available in several European, Latin American, and Asian countries. Students who have studied abroad typically return to campus with expressions such as “our lives have been changed forever.”
Our collective responsibility, if we are to achieve our vision for 2020, is to further enhance high-quality outreach globally – to enrich not only active learning for students, but also further engage colleagues internationally when we have special expertise to offer, be that in cotton genetics, wind energy, geopolitical understanding, or music instruction. The trick is in emphasizing our strengths – disciplinary and interdisciplinary alike – and avoiding would-be attempts to “be all things to all people.” In fact, it is good to keep in mind the well-understood developmental paradigm used by established and promising or upcoming National Research Universities: reviewing faculty and program strengths broadly, promoting excellence in areas of strength, and identifying and supporting interconnections. It represents a schema that has been adopted during recent strategic hiring efforts with results that are beginning to pay off handsomely.
So, despite the fiscal challenges we currently are experiencing, prospects are bright for TTU reaching its 2020 vision of becoming a great public research university. But some might ask: Are there downsides to such a development? Will we regret any negative consequences to our becoming a Tier One institution? Let’s examine these questions.
The Dark Side to Greatness
Whether you talk about the fortunes of corporate executives, political figures, or celebrities, failures follow a set of failings that have parallels in higher education institutions. In our collective experience and that of other academicians, the pitfalls of “academic greatness” tend to include: (1) arrogance, (2) condescension and (3) elitism. All of these characteristics are generally foreign in the TTU culture as is testified to by visitors we meet practically every day. And, it is our hope that the desirable characteristics of TTU will be preserved as we go forward. For our part, we will continue to engage faculty, staff, and students through a system of shared governance that is well-established at Texas Tech. We also hope that as our outreach efforts expand, including service learning efforts of our faculty and students, the “reservoir of good will” that has been developed with communities near and far will expand and grow deeper. Our recently published 2010 strategic planning report contains updates suggesting that we are making notable progress toward our vision on all fronts, including student success, research and creative efforts, and outreach. That’s good for all of us.
About the Authors
*Guy Bailey is president and professor of English at Texas Tech University.
**Bob Smith is provost and senior vice president, and professor of chemistry at Texas Tech University.