Tier One Baylor: To Be or Not To Be

by W. Richard Turner | December 31, 2018

W. Richard Turner is a retired industrial research chemist for a major pharmaceutical company. He has a PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Connecticut where he was a National Science Foundation Fellow. He was also a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. During his career he was a frequent guest lecturer at major universities. He and his wife live in Woodway, TX

Recently the Baylor University Board of Regents and Baylor President Linda Livingstone announced their intention to pursue a path that will lead to Baylor becoming a Tier One research university. Many might be surprised to learn Baylor is not already a Tier One university. People may be astonished to discover just how far Baylor must go to reach this lofty and commendable goal.

There is no agency that decides when Tier One status has been achieved. However, the fact that Tier One and Tier Two levels exist attests to the fact that there is a discernable and measurable difference between the two levels. 

BENCHMARKS FOR TIER ONE STATUS

Let’s look at some benchmarks that are often used in defining the status of research universities. First, and perhaps most important, is the amount of money a university spends each year on research. The National Science Foundation requires that any university receiving federal funds for research file an annual report listing all sources of revenue and how that money is allocated among the various departments within the university. They also track the number of PhD degrees awarded each year. This information is in the public domain. For 2016, there were 46 universities whose annual research budgets exceeded $500 million, 104 universities with budgets greater than $200 million, 149 schools exceeding $100 million and 197 schools with research budgets more than $50 million — which is about twice what Baylor now spends. With an annual budget of $26.8 million in 2016, Baylor is ranked 241st among all schools in research expenditures.  

In a 2008 report to the Texas legislature, Thoughts on Creating More Tier One Universities in Texas, Dr David E. Daniel, President of the University of Texas – Dallas, states, “Research funding is critical to being a Tier One university, and a minimum of $100 million of annual research funding is often mentioned as an essential credential.” Dr. Daniel also points out how the State of Texas is losing out economically to other states by not having more Tier One research universities. That was ten years ago. Today that minimum is probably closer to $150 million.

One could just take those schools which reported spending more than $200 million and declare them to be Tier One. But that is misleading in that some research institutions are connected to universities but have no undergraduate programs included. It also places universities without medical colleges at a disadvantage.

Another indicator of Tier One status is the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Pertinent to our discussion are the two highest classifications; very high research activities (R1) and high research activities (R2). There are 115 universities classified as R1 and 107 universities classified as R2. These two categories are often thought of as Tier One and Tier Two status. Baylor is currently in the R2 category. There are unquestionably three Texas universities that are Tier One universities; Texas A&M, University of Texas-Austin and Rice University. However, University of Houston, Texas Tech, UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington and the University of North Texas also enjoy R1 classification. In addition to Baylor, Southern Methodist and TCU are also R2 universities. 

For some, the gold standard for determining Tier One status is membership in the Association of American Universities. There are only 62 members and it is by invitation only. No one ever questions the status of these elite universities. They are the best of the best and include Texas A&M, University of Texas-Austin and Rice. 

Perhaps one might simply go with national rankings. U.S, News & World Report magazine ranks Baylor tied for 71. However, Forbes magazine ranks Baylor at 211. Neither magazine uses the same metrics that are used to determine Tier One status. 

ATHLETICS NO LONGER A TOP PRIORITY

Baylor’s annual research budget of $26.8 million in 2016 is about one-fourth of what Baylor spends on athletics ($98 million). Because Baylor is one of very few schools whose athletic budget is larger than its research budget, Baylor has a nationally ranked athletic program and has won national championships in women’s basketball. Meanwhile, here are the annual research budgets of some of Baylor’s major women’s basketball rivals (2016 data): Stanford, $1,066 million; Texas A&M, $893 million; UConn, $265 million; Notre Dame, $202 million. While these universities can support both research and athletics at a high level, Baylor cannot currently do so. It is fair to question if Baylor has chosen to emphasize athletics over research, and if they will continue to do so.

HOW WACO WILL BENEFIT

In choosing where to locate their research activities, many companies will want to know what resources the university brings to the table. What kind of technical library do they have? Is there advanced research instrumentation not available elsewhere? How many National Academy members do they have on the faculty? What is the size of the University’s research budget and what are its sources of funding? What is the university’s track record in creating and capitalizing on intellectual property? What other university/industry collaborations has the university participated in? Is the university community and culture open and welcoming to the diversity that their employees might bring to their new home?

A top-tier research university generates hundreds of millions of dollars (and in some cases billions of dollars) in economic activity each year for the community where it is located. It dramatically improves the quality of life in that community. Everything, from public schools, to cultural opportunities, to recreation, housing, and even the restaurants, get better. Such communities are populated by a growing and well-educated workforce. There are simply not enough high-wage employers in Waco to raise family incomes.

It would be a tremendous boon to the Waco and to the Central Texas economy if Baylor had an annual research budget of $200 million. Money spent on research at a university is money spent in the local economy for goods, services and salaries. Half of the money spent for university research is federal tax dollars coming back home.

DIVERSITY

Baylor must continue to grapple with diversity of faculty, staff, and students, on issues ranging from faith to sexual orientation. Until Baylor proclaims itself as a university that hires faculty on the basis of their academic merit and not their willingness to adhere to a religious agenda, they will likely struggle to reach Tier One status. In some cases, faculty may have trouble attracting the outside funding necessary to become a credible research university. Even an unapologetically Christian university like Notre Dame has an inclusive, nondiscriminatory policy for admissions and hiring, including religious affiliation and LGBTQ persons. Tier One universities do not claim a religious exemption. 

For some prospective faculty, research partners, and graduate students, diversity and inclusion will be a key issue in deciding whether or not to partner with Baylor. 

WHAT MIGHT A TIER ONE BAYLOR LOOK LIKE

Students – What is being proposed is that Baylor University should become a Tier One RESEARCH university. This implies that its priority would shift from undergraduate teaching to graduate research. Make no mistake. Tier One status is all about the graduate school. Perhaps a third of Baylor’s students would be graduate students if Baylor became Tier One. However, if the current undergrad enrollment remains approximately the same (14,000 students) then the total enrollment might ideally increase to 21,000 students to achieve a 2:1 ratio of undergrad to grad.  

Faculty – Tier One status demands a Tier One faculty. Many on such faculties enjoy national and international reputations in their field and receive many honors such as Macarthur Fellowships, membership in the National Academies of Science, Engineering, or Medicine, etc. It is not at all fanciful to ask if a university which is capable of producing a Heisman Trophy winner might also be capable of producing a Nobel Prize winner. One might envision a doubling of the faculty size. A desirable student to faculty ratio is 10:1. Baylor’s ratio is currently 15:1. 

Infrastructure – There will have to be major capital investments in new laboratories and equipment. New construction could be a big boon for the Waco economy. This will be a major up-front cost of becoming a Tier One research university. But always remember, buildings don’t do research, people do. 

Peer review – Academic research relies on peer review of grant proposals for funding and the publication of research results in peer review journals. Standards are usually set by the professional societies for each discipline. In my field of chemistry that’s the American Chemical Society. Baylor must play by the same rules as any other Tier One university. While being unapologetically Christian may be a commendable virtue for individuals and institutions, it carries no more weight in the scientific community than being unapologetically Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or secular. To be credible, research must be conducted without any bias, religious or otherwise. There is no such thing as a Tier One “Christian” research university. 

Alumni – Last, but by no means least, alumni will play a critical role in determining whether Baylor becomes a Tier One research university. Without the enthusiastic support of the alumni, it probably won’t happen. The alumni as a whole, and major donors in particular, will be called upon to be significantly more generous in their support than they have been in the past. It will be seen as a significant factor in Baylor’s commitment to Tier One status. On the plus side, anything that enhances Baylor’s reputation makes a Baylor diploma even more valuable. Baylor alumni should insist on being a partner in decisions regarding Baylor’s future. They should insist on full transparency. Baylor alumni, and the Waco public in general, are stakeholders in Baylor’s future. 

2 thoughts on “Tier One Baylor: To Be or Not To Be

  1. I spent the last 10 years of my career at the University of Iowa Healthcare System as the CFO. Our healthcare system had about $250 million of funded research and were consistently about 25th public schools. Our leadership wanted to be in the top 15 and it would have taken over $200 million of investment either through contributions or state funds to make that move. It was beyound our reach. Baylor should carefully grow research and try to double the current level in a reasonable time.

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