Wednesday, July 8, 2009

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UT System Competitiveness Initiative Bolsters National Research Capacity, Recruits and Retains the Best Faculty

Since it was launched in 2006, a $2.56 billion program to boost the competitive advantage of University of Texas System institutions has led to the completion of more than a quarter of its projects, addition or renovation of more than 800,000 square feet of space and the hiring of 89 top-flight faculty members.  Ultimately, these investments will benefit students spread across the UT System for future generations.

And when concluded, the UT System’s Competitiveness Initiative will have completed 44 facilities projects across UT System institutions, totaling about 5.9 million square feet of added or renovated space.  By another measure, it will add more than 41 percent of academic research space and two and a half times more clinical space than the UT System had in 2005.

“As leaders in science, technology, engineering, math and health, it is incumbent on us to continually improve and always remain on the cutting edge,” said Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., UT System chancellor. “This unprecedented effort to increase capacity in these disciplines demonstrates the UT System’s unwavering commitment to produce the top institutions in the world. This program not only benefits our institutions and students, it makes Texas and our nation more vibrant and competitive.”

Progress on the Competitiveness Initiative was announced in a presentation by Chancellor Cigarroa to UT System Regents at a public meeting Wednesday (July 8) in Austin. The Board in August 2006 endorsed the multi-billion-dollar plan, which is expected to be completed in 2013. The initiative aims to provide UT System academic and health institutions with state-of-the-art equipment and facilities and to provide start-up packages designed to recruit and retain the world’s brightest research scientists and faculty.

The impetus for the initiative came after the National Academies’ 2005 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, called for a comprehensive effort to boost U.S. competitiveness.  Norm Augustine, former chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin and chairman of the National Academies’ report committee, delivered a pre-recorded video message to the Board and public stressing the key role higher education must play if the United States is to remain the global leader in the critical fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health care.  The report’s recommendation for institutions of higher education was “to make the United States the most attractive setting in which to study and perform research so that we can develop, recruit and retain the best and brightest students, scientists and engineers within the United States and throughout the world.”  Augustine also recognized the UT System for being the first major public university system to take steps to address the findings in the report.

And in less than one year after the report was published, the Board of Regents answered that challenge by establishing the UT System Competitiveness Initiative, a historic $2.56 billion commitment to building the most ambitious science, engineering, technology and health infrastructure in the country.  Funding for the initiative comes from state and federal appropriations, tuition revenue bonds authorized by the 79th Legislature, institutional funds, unprecedented Permanent University Fund allocations authorized by the UT System Board of Regents and philanthropic support from business, industry, foundations and individuals, largely stimulated by the Competitiveness Initiative.

“The UT System Board of Regents’ charge in 2006 and now, more than ever, is to profoundly impact our reach on a global scale and this investment in science, technology, engineering and health keeps us on a path of excellence and ensures that our institutions will remain among the leaders in research nationally,” said Regents’ Chairman James R. Huffines. “Texas is in a remarkable position to make great strides because this investment comes at a time when many other states suffering from a still-troubled national economy are cutting resources to higher education.”

Since 2006, the commitment of the initiative has actually grown to more than $3 billion, including:  $2.91 billion for academic and research facilities; $74.33 million in Science and Technology Acquisition and Retention (STARs) program funding to recruit and retain faculty; $21.88 million in Library, Equipment, Repair, and Rehabilitation (LERR) projects to keep faculty competitive and train students with the latest equipment; $1.87 million to partner with a national lab; and, $1.61 million from the Texas Ignition Fund (TIF) grants to help start new commercial ventures.

Examples of new investments include $150 million for a 200,000-square-foot South Texas Research Facility at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio; $123 million for engineering research buildings at UT Arlington; and $30 million for a math, science and engineering facility at UT Dallas. 

The accomplishments include:

  • Addition or renovation of about 813,000 square feet of clinical, research, classroom and laboratory space, with roughly 5.9 million additional square feet coming on line by 2013
  • Twelve major projects completed, such as the $97 million Dell Pediatric Research Institute in Austin and the $174 million Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB
  • Recruitment of 89 new STARs faculty and the retention of 31 outstanding faculty who could have moved their research elsewhere.  Seven of the individuals are members of the National Academies.  The UT System has allocated $124 million to attract or retain these talented faculty members. Initial STARs awards of $22 million in Fiscal Year 2005 and 2006 have yielded an estimated $198 million of external research funds at the System's academic institutions alone.
  • The creation of a series of special UT System awards to recognize and reward the academic achievement of faculty already at work at UT institutions.  These awards include the Chancellor’s Innovations in Education Awards; the Texas Ignition Fund; the Chancellor’s Health Fellows; the Chancellor’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Awards; and the new Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards, for which the inaugural winners will be announced in August

The UT System already is a national leader in producing graduates within the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In 2008, more than one in five degrees (22.6 percent) awarded at UT academic institutions was in these disciplines, higher than other public universities in Texas (18.2 percent) and the nation (18.5 percent).The total number of degrees awarded by UT System health-related institutions increased by nearly 10 percent from 2005 to 2008, compared to 5 percent nationally.

During the presentation, the Board and the public heard from several faculty members and graduate students whose work is a direct result of the Competitiveness Initiative. 

Dr. Tinsley Oden, associate vice president for research and director of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at UT Austin, discussed the positive impact that the STARs program had on his work, as did Brandi Baird, a graduate student at the UT Health Science Center at Houston.  Baird works with other STARs recipients in the Brown Foundation Institute of Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases. 

Dr. Denise Park, the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Chair in Clinical Brain Science and a UT Regents Scholar at UT Dallas, and Dr. Kristen Kennedy, a postdoctoral fellow, focus their research in understanding the role of age-related changes in memory function at the basic level as well as the implications of these changes in society. Dr. Park, a recipient of numerous grants and an NIH award, and Dr. Kennedy discussed how the Competitiveness Initiative helped attract them to Texas and how the funds facilitates their research.

Dr. Joe Takahashi, head of neurosciences at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and a STARs recipient, discussed his research interest in understanding the genetic and molecular basis of circadian rhythms.  A member of the National Academy of Science, one of Dr. Takahashi’s most important accomplishments is the discovery of a gene that is central to the control of circadian rhythms in mammals.

The UT System Office of Research and Technology Transfer, in collaboration with the Office of Strategic Management, produced an interim report on the progress of the Competitiveness Initiative.  The report will be made available online soon at www.utsystem.edu/competitive/reports.htm.

“The Competitiveness Initiative has given the UT System the wherewithal to recruit the world’s most outstanding faculty to educate our students, to provide us with outstanding health care, and to challenge the imagination of the scientists, engineers, mathematicians, health care providers, and, yes, students who will make the discoveries that change our lives for the better.  I can almost assure you that a student will be sitting in class and a professor will inspire that student, plant a seed of interest or even fascination … and that seed will lead to a life’s work – perhaps a Nobel Prize,” Chancellor Cigarroa said.  “We are very grateful for the vision and support from the Board of Regents, the Texas Legislature, and the many private funding sources that have given so generously to keep our state competitive – particularly at a time when so many other states are encountering difficulty in securing funding for higher education activities,” Cigarroa added.

About The University of Texas System
The University of Texas System is one of the nation’s largest higher education systems, with nine academic campuses and six health institutions. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $11.5 billion (FY 2009) including $2.5 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. Student enrollment exceeded 194,000 in the 2008 academic year. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state's undergraduate degrees and educates nearly three-fourths of the state's health care professionals annually. With more than 84,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.

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