RICHARDSON — Nearly 2,000 new students at the University of Texas at Dallas walked through the heart of the campus and its main arteries — marked by long stretches of fountains and aisles of magnolia trees — on their way to Sunday’s welcoming convocation.
The green and sprawling university in Richardson began as a research center, housed in a white, boxy concrete building, founded in the 1960s by three businessmen seeking to improve the local workforce for what would become the tech giant Texas Instruments.
“Nobody knew what it was, and because it was for this new science company Texas Instruments and had all this land around it, people thought it was a nuclear reactor,” said David Daniel, who served as UT-Dallas’ president from 2005 to 2015.
Now, five decades after joining the University of Texas System, UT-Dallas has emerged as a top state research institution and the fourth-fastest growing university in the nation, according to a 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education report.
The university kicked off its 50th anniversary celebrations at the convocation, the first of several events during the 2019-20 academic year. It’s also unveiling a new branding campaign, including a logo with a ‘50’ and a flying comet on it.
“Our university is still young,” UT Dallas President Richard C. Benson told the crowd at the convocation, many sporting the school’s green and orange colors. “It has a strong foundation in the STEM disciplines, business, and, increasingly, the arts. But like institutions around the world, technology has brought changes over the years.”
But before evolving into the Times Higher Education’s “number-one university under 50 years old” in 2017, UT-Dallas had to overcome decades of political pushback with the help of tech and Dallas-Fort Worth leaders.
UT-Dallas, located a few miles away from Texas Instruments, is a “real marvelous story of collaboration” between the city’s tech industry and the university, said Bill Sproull, president of the Richardson Chamber of Commerce.
“Our institutional DNA is literally integrated with Texas Instruments,” said Joseph Pancrazio, UT-Dallas’ vice president for research. “Usually, you think of industry coming from academia.”
Texas Instruments founders Eugene McDermott, Cecil Green and J. Erik Jonsson often found themselves looking outside of Texas for workers, so they established the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest in 1961 to train the local workforce.
The vision for the center was for it to become “the MIT of the Southwest,” Daniel said.
Even after the center, renamed the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies in 1967, was transferred to the UT System, the founders remained involved and Texas Instruments has been key to its growth.
When the company sought a location for its $3 billion chip fabrication plant, the state committed to investing $300 million in UT-Dallas in 2003 in consideration for the company remaining in Richardson, said Philip Ritter, who was company vice president of governmental and community relations at the time.
“If TI was to build a manufacturing plant of that magnitude — and, you know, stake our future and advanced manufacturing here in the state of Texas — we needed to have a top engineering school nearby in order to support research and development,” Ritter said.
The deal helped fund the redesign of the university’s J. Erik Jonsson School of Engineering, which includes facilities such as a world-class clean room necessary for making microchips.
Meanwhile, Texas Instruments still benefits from the graduates and research at UT-Dallas as the two continue to collaborate.
UT Dallas’ transformation “was a long evolution with a lot of politics,” said Hobson Wildenthal, who previously served as the university’s provost and executive vice president and as interim president.
When then-Gov. Preston Smith signed a bill making the center part of the UT System in June 1969, UT-Dallas was restricted to only serve upperclassmen. That’s because of pushback from existing universities in North Texas, Wildenthal said.
It wasn’t until 1990 that lawmakers gave UT-Dallas the green light to admit freshmen and sophomores. But they said the quality of the freshman class “could be no less than that of UT-Austin” with admissions standards as vigorous as the UT System’s flagship university, Daniel said.
UT-Dallas had about 100 freshmen when Wildenthal first arrived in 1992 to be its chief academic officer.
“That was done to kill us,” Daniel said. “But, in my view, it might be the single best thing that has ever happened to the university because we went out and recruited.”
That rule was repealed in 2005, and by 2011 the university’s first-time freshmen enrollment ballooned to 1,777. But the spirit of the rule remained, and Daniel said the university continues to attract students with some of the highest SAT scores in the state.
“I think that set the tone for the university of true excellence in academics,” he said.
The Jonsson School of Engineering was deemed in 2018 one of the best graduate schools for engineering by U.S. News & World Report. Among business schools, the Naveen Jindal School of Management was ranked 38th last year, ahead of Texas A&M, ranked at No. 40
Many of the university’s business and engineering programs trail just behind Rice University, UT-Austin and Texas A&M.
With state support, however, the university is working to reach the prestige of these state rivals. It benefited from the 2009 Texas Research Incentive Program, a state gift-matching program to encourage research fundraising, and it gained access to the state’s National Research University Fund for emerging research universities, in 2018.
“UT-Dallas did very, very well in that (TRIP) competition, and it was because of the support of TI and of other companies or major philanthropists,” Ritter said.
School leaders say the university’s research continues to thrive because students are eager to get involved.
UT-Dallas isn’t known for its athletics, but that doesn’t dampen students’ school spirit.
“It’s kind of cool how this university prides itself on not having a football team, but instead on having a world-class chess team,” Sproull said.
The university’s growth has not been without some drama. In 2015, a UT-Dallas officer sued the university, claiming he was fired for blowing the whistle on a fellow cop’s false affidavit.
More recently, UT-Dallas instructors were allowed to keep their jobs after it was revealed they let police officers skip classes but still earn credit. And a transfer student from Baylor University who’d been accused of raping another student there was banned from the UT-Dallas campus but was allowed to graduate.
While the university’s academic programs flourished, the campus itself remained bleak for many years.
“It was mostly concrete and a few not very healthy trees,” Wildenthal said.
In 2005, the now late Margaret McDermott, a renowned philanthropist and the wife of one of the founders, funded a redesign by famed architect Peter Walker.
“I suggested to her that the university was attracting very dignified students and faculty, but, if the university had a more elegant physical appearance, it’d be easier to recruit,” Wildenthal said.
The transformation of the campus from what Daniel called an “industrial complex” to its lush, modern appearance took years of investing $1 billion in construction projects during Daniel’s tenure as president.
It attracted faculty like Pancrazio, who says he was partly drawn to join the university in 2015 by its facilities. And the redesign helped seal the university’s identity.
After most of the main mall work was completed, a professor approached Daniel while on a stroll and told him, “President Daniel, I’ve been here for 30 years, and this is the first time I felt like I teach at a real university.”
UT-Dallas first went on Benson’s radar nearly 10 years ago while he was dean of Virginia Tech’s engineering school and the head of his mechanical engineering department considered leaving for a job in Texas.
“I asked, ‘What’s the other school?’” Benson said. “And he said, ‘Well, the University of Texas’ and I thought, ‘Oh, OK.’ But then he said ‘at Dallas’ and I was like, ‘What?’”
At that point, UT-Dallas’ mechanical engineering program was new and Benson hadn’t even registered the university as a worry.
By the time Daniel left the university to join the UT System as deputy chancellor in 2015, Benson had his own sights set on UT-Dallas.
Now, as its fifth president, Benson hopes to expand the founders’ vision of UT-Dallas through a nine-point strategic plan that includes advancing research, enriching the university’s arts programs and creating a culture of philanthropy to fund initiatives.
Benson has overseen the university’s swift evolution from a STEM school, for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, into a STEAM institution, which includes Arts, through the recent acquisition of the Crow Museum of Asian Art and the Barrett Swiss Art Collection.
“We want to create additional opportunities for our students to engage in arts or at least to witness,” he said.
Plus, the School of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication, founded in 2015, explores the increasing intersection of arts and STEM through research in areas such as virtual reality and advanced animation, Pancrazio said.
“I think that the future of ATEC is extremely bright, and all you have to do is look at the success of esports,” he said, referencing the rise of electronic sports such as Wii games.
Still, the university has continued its original mission of furthering science innovation in D-FW by adding facilities in Dallas and partnering with UT Southwestern Medical Center for biomedical and engineering research, which could help improve practices such as cancer imaging.
This type of joint effort has become a high priority for the UT System, and it’s expecting UT-Dallas to rise to the challenge of educating and serving Dallas-Fort Worth’s ever-growing population.
“The state will have a number of the nation’s leading public research universities, and I’m counting on UT-Dallas to be one of those,” UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken said.
UT-Dallas expects 29,000 students — including about 20,000 undergraduates — this academic year and is on track to meet its goal of expanding its undergrad enrollment to 23,000 by 2023, Benson said.
The university says 20% of the students are from foreign countries. Of the rest of the student population, 25% is Asian American, 14% Hispanic and 5% African American.
To meet its other goals and further its research, Benson said the university is looking to its growing alumni network for stable funding as state university funding and international student enrollment continue to be precarious.
Students at this year’s convocation saw a bright future in UT-Dallas’ current trajectory.
Eddie Villarreal, an incoming software engineering student from Hurst, said his parents were impressed by the university’s sciences, but he was attracted by the clubs and activities that friends attending the university described.
“They said it was a good environment to better yourself and your community,” he said. “They were super-excited about the culture, and it made me want to join.”