A collection of for-profit universities has launched over the past few decades to great success, including the University of Phoenix. Some of these universities, which offer online programs, have been criticized for being “degree mills” of low quality. But clearly they were meeting a need. The millions of people who enrolled were interested in obtaining degrees in programs that were flexible and affordable.

“Without getting into whether they’re good or bad,” committee member Eric Reeves says, “the bottom line is that they’re so heavily subscribed by students that they’re doing something right.”

Those universities have swung the pendulum to the extreme on digital education and dramatically cut one of the more significant costs—buildings and maintenance. But efficiency couldn’t be the primary goal of UNT Dallas, argued Silva, also a regent for the UNT System. Silva grew up as one of five children of a single mother on welfare. For him,  interacting with other students at Texas Lutheran University, where he attended on a full scholarship, was in some ways more vital than what he learned in books.

“I quickly learned that the affluent kids put their pants on the same way as I did,” says Silva, a first-generation high school and college graduate. “Most of them weren’t that smart, they were just born with a lot of money. That’s the kind of education I want these kids at UNT Dallas to get, to know that they can excel no matter where they come from.”

unt_03 UNT System Chancellor Lee Jackson has quietly reorganized the institution, leading it beyond Denton. photography courtesy of UNT Dallas

Committee members agreed students should spend most of their time in real classrooms with live teachers. But they believed higher education hadn’t done enough to exploit the cost-saving advantages of digital education. They believed some portion of courses, perhaps almost half, should be conducted online.

UNT Dallas, they decided, also needed to make sure it transformed into a residential campus, rather than a commuter school. Having a student population and hundreds of school employees who needed to eat, shop, and play is the only way the surrounding area will transform. “I came from the hood,” Silva recalls telling the committee. “The last thing I want to do is go to college and find out I’m in the hood again. What kind of offering is that?”

Gottfredson, the Bain consultant, assigned a team from his firm to analyze ideas from the committee and see if they were feasible. They began compiling data, interviewing experts, and developing additional theories about how to cut costs. Gottfredson has come to believe that states could offer a similar quality education to that of most public universities, for less than half the cost.

But there would be sacrifices. For instance, facilities. On the traditional college campus, most academic disciplines have their own buildings. Those buildings are used an average of 40 percent of the time and filled to about 60 or 70 percent capacity, Gottfredson says. Though many buildings are paid for by donors, they carry enormous maintenance and utility costs. If building space were maximized, Gottfredson says, universities could cut their average facilities cost per student by more than half.

Another area to consider, he says, is the traditional approach to faculty tenure.

“You receive tenure not by being a good professor but by doing research,” Gottfredson says. “The point of a lot of that research is to get
published, not to make the world a better place.”

Students and taxpayers support the enormous costs of that research, he says. A preferable model for UNT Dallas might be to emphasize teaching skills, coupled with some applied research. Teachers focused on teaching rather than research would further cut costs.

It has not gone unnoticed that the commission is light on professors, although one was asked to serve as a faculty liaison. Some inside the university have quietly voiced concerns about the direction of the committee, but officials say the majority of professors have been supportive and heavily consulted along the way. Of the 53 professors at UNT Dallas, only six have tenure.

Many universities, particularly large public ones, have aspired to do everything well—sports, research, highly specialized courses, graduate schools. Having everything comes at an enormous price. But, as Gottfredson sees it, if a university is willing to focus and target specific groups of students, it can deliver education at a fraction of the cost. If they are successful at UNT Dallas, he thinks the model will spread.

“It will put pressure on other public universities to become more effective and efficient,” Gottfredson says. “And that’s going to change the educational landscape in this country.”

In early December, Price asked SMU President R. Gerald Turner out to his new campus for lunch. The two men are old acquaintances, meeting when they were administrators at neighboring colleges years ago in Mississippi.

“He wanted to make sure that I knew what was going on down there,” Turner recalls.

As Price tries to secure his university’s place in the city, he might look to Turner, who, during his time at SMU, has worked to more fully
integrate his school with Dallas and its residents. Turner says he has worked to respond to community needs. For instance, after a number of Dallas school leaders asked for help with teacher training, he created the Simmons School of Education. He thinks UNT will be able to help meet the city’s specialized education needs in the same way.

For the short term, Turner doesn’t see UNT Dallas as competition for SMU, as they certainly will draw students from different pools. “They’re in the formative stages of developing their curriculum and majors,” Turner says. “They’re kind of where we were in the 19-teens.”

But down the road, the planned UNT law school downtown could compete with SMU, Turner says. “Our evening program has been so successful that we feel like we are pretty much meeting the legal demands in Dallas,” Turner says. “If their law school is ever funded, I think that’s the only place there might be competition down the road.”

SMU has always held a special place in the city. The first building constructed on the SMU campus was named Dallas Hall, because the people of Dallas funded it and donated the land. Turner doesn’t believe anything will change with the addition of UNT Dallas.

“The real entrepreneurial spirit of Dallas is very much reflected in the ambiance of SMU,” Turner says. “We are what the basic DNA of Dallas is all about.”

Good accountants, Price says, recognize that it’s not just about the bottom line but the whole picture. UNT Dallas will not sacrifice quality for cost, he says. But the hope is to become something new, something different.

“If this university attempts to operate just as another four-year university, we’re going to have a terrible time,” Price says. “Education has become a very competitive environment. So in order for us to be a winner, a leader, we need to be at the forefront of change.”

The 21st Century Commission plans to finalize its recommendations by summer, setting forth the most fundamental details of UNT Dallas. Already, some things appear certain. UNT Dallas will have a competitive admissions process, rather than admitting every student. It will have core humanities requirements, with students learning about Hemingway and history, along with pursuing professional paths. Some portion of the students’ education will be delivered online, and some portion will occur in real classrooms. The school will have dorms and strive to become a residential campus.

The school hopes to gain its accreditation at the end of this year and begin offering its own unique courses by fall 2013. As the university grows, it will continue to add buildings. DART plans to extend its Blue Line to the campus in 2019, at which point planners expect to attract more serious interest from developers. One concern is the lack of infrastructure such as water and sewer lines in the area, a costly obstacle for developers. Mayor Rawlings says he plans to add this project to the city’s next bond program, perhaps as early as this year.

Most everyone agrees that significant hurdles still stand in the way of UNT Dallas.

President Price is concerned about money. The $1 million in pro bono help from Bain ran out in January. He has enough money to get through this month, and then he must regroup. He worries about the difficulty of attracting vital funds to a school that doesn’t have a robust group of alumni. He plans to take his case to local business leaders, hoping to convince them of the university’s worth.

“What we need more than anything is a Mark Cuban or a Perot,” Price says. “Somebody who says, ‘By God, I want to be a part of this legacy.’ ”

He notes how vital the McDermott family had been in the growth of UTD in Richardson. “We need a McDermott family,” Price says. “In fact, we need several.”

UNT System Chancellor Jackson worries about focus. With multiple ongoing projects—not only UNT Dallas, but also the law school—he worries about the university stretching itself too thin, falling back into the very pattern it’s trying to avoid.

And he worries about geography.

Jackson grew up in Oak Cliff, a few miles from the campus. “I know the area,” he says, “and I love the area.” But there are people, he says, who have never crossed the Trinity River except to drive to a football game in Austin. They don’t know what’s off I-35 in Oak Cliff, or South Dallas, or Cedar Hill. They’re not aware of the topography that affords spectacular views of the city, or the nice, middle-class neighborhoods that surround the university, Jackson says. “And they’re certainly not aware of the two buildings we have built, unless we’re imaginative enough to bring them to our campus,” he says.

When the university has thousands of students on its land someday, it may be the largest employer in the southern half of Dallas, anchoring the kind of healthy developments that unfold for miles along the city’s north half.

“We will all be better off,” Jackson says, “when we live in a city where job opportunities are distributed more evenly. Where people don’t have to drive so far to shop for their families. Where there are really good grocery stores convenient to every single neighborhood. That will affect the quality of all our schools, from kindergarten to college.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all will be skepticism.

“Because,” Jackson says, “people in the north will say, ‘But it’s down there.’ ”

Write to jamie.thompson@yahoo.com.