On a hilltop in southeast Oak Cliff, a small but powerful group of men and women walked into a quiet classroom one night a few months ago and took their seats at a rectangular table, facing each other, prepared for debate.

The group was gathered to help create a blueprint for the first public university in Dallas, the largest city in the country without its own. Among the people at that table was Mark Cuban, who has credited undergraduate business classes with helping him become a billionaire. Another, Al Silva, believed a college education of Faulkner and Tolstoy transformed him from a boy on welfare to the head of a billion-dollar corporation, Labatt Food Service. It seemed distinctly Dallas that mostly doers, rather than teachers, had been tapped for the task of deciding where the University of North Texas at Dallas goes from here.

More than a decade in the making, the school currently has 2,032 students, and is growing at a rate of about 12.5 percent a year. But as leaders work toward securing independent accreditation this year, they are preparing for massive growth.

If the vision is fully realized, dozens of brick buildings will rise on 264 acres off Camp Wisdom Road. Within the next 25 years, the university hopes to enroll as many as 30,000 students—more than double that of SMU. The university could reshape the city so significantly that its impact might eventually be compared to that of the DFW Airport, its boosters say. UNT Dallas aspires to educate those who are not being educated, at potentially enormous economic gain to the city. Leaders also hope the university will be the long-awaited catalyst for revitalizing the city’s struggling southern sector.

Not lost on those involved is the rare opportunity before them, a virtual educational blank slate. The school’s brain trust is attempting to create a new type of university in an experiment that already has gained the attention of national education experts.

“How many times in the lifetime of a community do you get to create a public university?” asks Dallas businessman and educational philanthropist Eric Reeves. “It’s so rare; it just doesn’t happen. It’s not even generational. It’s once in a lifetime.”

Led by a former accountant, UNT Dallas is moving into the future with a mix of idealism and practicality, trying to educate more people more efficiently. The school is also attempting to carve out its own identity, both as a separate entity from its Denton parent and, more grandly, as the face of higher education in Dallas. It’s a tall order, especially since UNT Dallas is making a go of it in a city that is already so closely associated with a well-endowed school that sits on a much tonier hilltop to the north.

“We’re building a university in the middle of an area that many people have written off,” UNT System Chancellor Lee Jackson says.

The story of UNT Dallas spans more than a decade and was driven, in large measure, by one fact: only 28 percent of Dallas adults have college degrees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For comparison, Austin boasts 44 percent and Atlanta hits nearly 46 percent. There are universities nearby—UTD in Richardson, UNT Denton, the University of Dallas in Irving, UT Arlington. But that was no longer good enough. Area leaders, long troubled that Dallas did not have its own public university, asked three universities to submit proposals, and chose UNT to finally fill that void. They liked that UNT, a large research university in Denton with 36,000 students, did not want to establish a satellite campus or simply replicate itself within the city’s limits. Instead, UNT was prepared to launch an independent university with its own president, programs, and Dallas-driven prerogatives.

The main goal would be to expand access to higher education to some of the 72 percent of adults who do not have college degrees. If the city could shift that percentage even slightly, the economic benefits would be significant, city leaders believe. A study by the group CEOs for Cities claims that if Dallas could raise its college graduation rate by 1 percent, the net impact could be $4.6 billion in personal income. Leaders also wanted UNT to establish a public law school downtown and other professional graduate programs.

Politicians decided that the new university should rise south of the Trinity River, to target potential students there and to serve as a possible game changer for the city’s long-struggling south. Senator Royce West and others helped secure legislative approval in 2001, and the city paid $3 million for 202 acres off Camp Wisdom Road, near Interstate 20. Gifts and purchases added another 62 acres to the campus. The large, undeveloped tract was considered a rare gem by city planners. It had enviable natural features—rolling hills, a creek system, scores of mountain cedar and hackberry trees—and an elevation that gave it a view of the city’s glimmering skyline.

As UNT moved forward, one man began to emerge as the clear leader for the Dallas experiment, an accountant from rural Mississippi named Dr. John Ellis Price. Price was a CPA turned academic who had spent 14 years at UNT Denton, rising from professor to department chair. Before he became president of UNT Dallas, he had gotten a close look at the machine of academia.

As an accountant, he was constantly concerned with efficiency and economy. He came to see academia as operating largely at the pleasure of professors, who taught courses when they wanted to, on subjects they wanted to, rather than focusing on students’ needs. Though they do many things exceptionally well, universities could use a healthy dose of supply and demand, Price figured. He did not view students as customers, per se, but thought their schedules and needs should be better taken into account. Then, perhaps more students would attend and finish college.

unt_02 (clockwise from top left) New building in southern Dallas; students in science lab; John Ellis Price at graduation photography: building and seal by Elizabeth Lavin; others courtesy of UNT Dallas

Weighing in on an enduring debate about the best approach to higher education, Price believed some traditional tenets of college—such as an emphasis on research over teaching—had contributed to the skyrocketing cost of a degree. While higher education should include an Aristotelian pursuit of knowledge—knowledge for knowledge’s sake—it also should be practical, affordable, and lead to a paycheck.

In Price’s own life, higher education was life changing. He grew up in a house with nine siblings and no indoor plumbing. Neither of his parents finished grade school. He remembers being embarrassed at having to chop and deliver firewood at night with his father, and ashamed at having only two pairs of pants in high school—one to wear, and one to wash.

“I vowed early on that I wasn’t going to have that kind of life,” Price says. “It didn’t take me long to realize that education was my way out.”

Educators, he believes, have done a poor job of teaching students the vital link between school and prosperity. On his campus in southeast Oak Cliff, he aimed to change that.

It was a slow start. Before the hilltop in Oak Cliff came the office park on South Hampton Road, where the university first opened its doors to students in 2000 as a branch campus. By law, the school needed 1,000 full-time equivalent students before it could declare independence from the flagship in Denton. As the enrollment slowly climbed, construction began on the first of the university’s two brick buildings, at a cost of $25.4 million. Looking ahead, City Council members drafted a hopeful land use plan for miles around the university, envisioning walkable, mixed-use developments similar to Mockingbird Station and West Village.

After the 1,000th full-time student enrolled in 2009, UNT Dallas declared its independence on September 1, 2010, officially becoming the city’s first publicly supported, four-year university. The City Council changed the name of the adjacent road to University Hills Boulevard. Price turned to the next significant hurdle: separate accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

A thorough process that can stretch on for years, accreditation was the next step toward true independence. If Price wanted to experiment with a new model, he needed his own accreditation. Until then, he had to operate under that of the flagship in Denton, teaching the courses it taught, in the ways it taught them.

But that day was soon coming. And Price wanted to be prepared. So he did something unconventional in academia. Instead of turning inward to professors and administrators, he sent out a request for proposal to top business management firms. Within a week, he received a letter from Bain & Company, a consulting firm that typically worked with Fortune 1000 and midmarket companies.

“You know,” one of the partners told Price, “this RFP you put out is really cutting-edge stuff.”

Bain & Company had done some work in academia but focused more on business efficiency rather than academic policy. Partners knew the project could be lucrative for the firm. Dallas is the perfect testing ground for new approaches in higher education, because it has all the problems of other cities, on a much larger scale: struggling K-12 schools, dwindling financial resources, and a growing Hispanic population with low college attendance rates. Bain partners told Price they would offer $1 million in consulting fees for the project, pro bono.

“The gods were smiling on me,” Price says, leaning back in a blue leather chair in his campus office. As a fledgling state university, created in one of the worst economic downturns since the Depression, he had only $75,000 in his budget to draft a plan.

The project was of personal interest to Bain partner Mark Gottfredson, a Harvard business graduate. “Almost everyone agrees that we have an educational crisis in this country,” Gottfredson says. “So many people come out with degrees that don’t get them jobs, with high levels of debt that they can never pay off. The next big financial crisis in this country could be the whole student debt overhang. It’s an enormous problem.”

One of Bain’s first jobs was to help Price assemble a group of high-profile business leaders and politicians to brainstorm what the university of the future needed to be. They would call themselves The Commission on Building the University of the 21st Century. Quickly, the school secured A-list support, including Cuban, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, and Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes. The group’s members began meeting in November to discuss every aspect of the university. One committee member attended virtually, his face beamed onto a video screen in the classroom.

They talked about what they thought higher education needed to be. Businessmen urged an international component, as Silva, the head of Labatt Food Service, talked about how his industry has become largely driven by snack sales in India and China. The committee also examined what was happening in the marketplace, outside of taxpayer-funded education.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.