When Will Dallas Have a Great University?

Even if the UNT Eagle can prove its supremacy over the SMU Mustang, can either school develop a national reputation for greatness?   Illustration by John Gay
Even if the UNT Eagle can prove its supremacy over the SMU Mustang, can either school develop a national reputation for greatness? Illustration by John Gay

Let’s begin by granting the idea that magazine lists of America’s best universities aren’t a definitive reflection of what constitutes a “great” school, with that term defined as superior quality.  But these lists do mean something when it comes to “great” in terms of grand reputation, a reputation that can assist and enhance the attractiveness of the city in which such a school is situated.

The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area is the fourth-largest population center in the United States, and yet in the Top Colleges list released last week by Forbes, the highest ranked school from our region sits at only No. 105, SMU. The three metro areas larger than ours – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – all have entries in the top 20. Of the 10-largest metro areas (including also Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, and Boston)  the only one we’re outdoing by that measure is Miami, whose top-ranked school is only No. 132.

If you look at the latest U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges lists, Dallas-Fort Worth doesn’t do any better. That magazine splits its rankings among several categories.  SMU is No. 62 among National Universities.  Austin College (in Sherman) is No. 64 among National Liberal Arts Colleges.  Among Regional Universities, the University of Dallas places No. 14.  Even Miami beats us on these lists.

So how long will it be before Dallas-Fort Worth has a university reach a level of greatness consistent with the region’s size? And which school is it likely to be?  SMU would seem to have the best chance, given that it’s the best positioned school that we’ve got on these lists.

In our February issue, we discussed how the University of North Texas is planning to “dominate Dallas.” But it’s got a long way to go to be considered one of the country’s greatest centers of higher education. UNT places No. 574 on the Forbes and goes unranked by U.S. News.

Who then? UT-Arlington, No. 560? UT-Dallas, No. 385? TCU, No. 214? Or University of Dallas, No. 120?  We know that UTA, UTD, and UNT have all set their sights on transforming into tier-one research universities.  Which will reach the top first?


  • Jason Ballmann

    This is a fantastic article with an offensive title… I’d consider revising before you get a massive storm from the community. Just because these schools aren’t top 20 doesn’t mean they aren’t “great”.

  • Gregg

    The better question is, “when will the Metropolitan Complex have a research university, if ever?”

  • Steve

    If SMU comes up in discussions outside of Texas, some people may remember the football “death penalty”. But don’t worry, soon everyone will know SMU as home of the Bush Libary (sic). That should help.

  • John Angle

    Obviously it will be SMU. We’re not top 20 yet, but rising quickly in rankings of all kinds.

  • AK

    Like to Jason’s comment. College rankings are important, but they’re not everything. From US News’ methodology FAQ:

    “Indicators used to measure academic quality fall into seven broad areas: peer assessment; retention and graduation of students; faculty resources; student selectivity; financial resources; alumni giving; and (for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges) “graduation rate performance,” the difference between the proportion of students expected to graduate and the proportion who do and high school counselor ratings.”

    Those are interesting items to measure, but do they measure true “greatness”? I’d say no. Greatness is a bit more ethereal.

    Not to say that SMU has achieved the greatness of Harvard – just that there’s more to the picture than rankings.

  • @Jason Ballmann and AK: As you’ll note from my opening paragraph, I don’t disagree with you. What I’m discussing here is a different meaning of “great.” Closer to a synonym of “significant” or “important,” as when we refer to the “great men” of history.

  • yourcraig

    I still remember moving here in 1993 for first job out of school. College radio had been a great part of my university experience. Remember this was three years before Google so researching a new town wasn’t as easy as a few clicks. As my U-Haul neared the city limits, I started searching literally “left of the dial”. I was heartbroken to find it barren. I just assumed a town the size of Dallas with multiple institutions would have a station. I am not counting UNT’s jazz — I mean traditional college radio who’s usual playlist mirrors (and contributes to) the CMJ chart, with lots of specialty shows and local coverage thrown in. Please don’t point me to KXT. Right now they are playing Dave Matthews (and Dire Straits was in the last 10).

  • CollinBabs

    I love UNT and am a current doctoral student there. The corporatization of academia, mixed with administration and state politics and the fragmented emphasis on UNT Dallas, is a hindrance to UNT as a whole. UNT is a great school and the students and faculty at the Denton campus are of high calibre, intelligent and motivated – there is good work being done and much potential for current and future contributions to solve world problems and create a better society. How to break into the national Top 20 is an exploration worthy of a doctoral dissertation!

  • M.H.

    Simply by UTD and UNT placing billboards just outside of SMU’s campus, we all know who they’re trying (but not succeeding) to beat out.

  • Hannibal Lecter

    Interesting that no one has mentioned that the UT Austin — the 800-pound gorilla — was ranked 104, just one slot above SMU. All the billions in taxpayer subsidies they’ve received over the years doesn’t seem to have gotten them very far.

  • J bennett

    Ahem…intellectualism …is it even a word in this area much less a top 20 university?

  • Teo Soares

    This logic is a little backwards, I think. Just because a metropolitan area is large, it doesn’t necessarily follow it should have a “great” university. Most of the top schools in the Forbes list are in either California or the northeast. I’d venture to say that large metropolitan areas owe their top schools to an accident of geography rather than their population. Take New England, for example. The density of top universities in that part of the country is so high that its almost hard to carve out a metropolitan area without hitting an Ivy League school.

    And while we may not be beating out Atlanta, their “great” school is Emory, which is a good school but no MIT. Also, consider this: there are about 2,300 colleges and universities in the U.S. If SMU is ranked 105, it’s still better than 95% of colleges in the country.

  • Christopher

    This article reads like the tantrum of a six year-old: “Why don’t I have a great UNIVERSITY!?! Give me a great UNIVERSITY!!!

    The Dallas community and media does very little to support its local schools, instead choosing to blow kisses at UT in Austin or Tech in Lubbock. This does seem to bother anyone until college academic rankings come out and suddenly they are indignant. Higher academic communities call this phenomenon “cognitive dissonance”.

  • @Teo: But doesn’t a great city need a great university?

  • Teo Soares

    @Jason: Well, we get our iPhones from Cupertino and our cheese from Tillamook. Why can’t we get our degrees from Williamstown, MA?

  • LakeWWWooder

    I have re-engaged somewhat with SMU over the past several years (BBA, BFA in the 80s) and I can report that it is on the ascendancy and building momentum. It’s astounding how much money is going into that campus. “Back in my day” we worried about raising a few hundred dollars for new seating in the B-School lounge…

  • Mike

    @Jason We are not and will not be a great city, but we are and will be a great place to do business. Like a locust, I came here to feed on the bountiful, but the resources (i.e. water, good public education, middle class) will run out in our lifetime. IJS.

  • @Teo: Because we cannot count on our stockpiles of iProducts or fine Oregon cheeses to attract creative people who are not from here to want to live here and to want to start businesses here.

  • Jerome Weeks

    A number of years ago, the Dallas Morning News published a forum addressing the question, Is Dallas an intellectual center? As the paper’s book critic, I voted no way, and caught some flak for it. Comes with the glamorous media job. But the simple fact is that ‘intellectuals,’ like everyone else, go where the jobs are. You need a kind of ‘high IQ infrastructure,’ and North Texas didn’t — and doesn’t — really have the top-grade research library, the think tanks, the foundations, the publications, the density of leading graduate departments — that are needed to hold a significant number of big-brained sorts in the neighborhood. Except, that is, when it comes to things like medicine and business and engineering.

    But, I concluded, do we even want to be ‘an intellectual center’? Why? Because if we do, I suggested that the other thing that draws people to a city are good schools, and Dallas’ dropout rate, the number of adults here without high-school let alone college degrees, does not point to any high-tech, high-paying, big-thinking, glorious future for us.

  • SKE

    I got my BA at UNT and my Master’s at University of Dallas. UNT was fine–a perfectly reasonable school, certainly a decent value for the money. But UD was far and away beyond it in terms of intellectual rigor and a student body that genuinely loved learning. My husband did his graduate work at Yale and I’m still more impressed with the program at UD. I recommend it to every high school senior I know. I am mystified that it doesn’t get better rankings.

  • Thanks for pointing out Austin College is in Sherman – and NOT in Austin. As an alumni, I can say first-hand it is an outstanding college, and it is only getting better. Especially since Dr. Marjorie Hass became President several years ago. It will never be SMU or TCU, but it’s not meant to be. It will most likely continue to be a little known gem about an hour north of Dallas. It will continue being awesome, as well.

  • Richard F.

    SMU as a whole is nothing special, but the Cox Business School is another creature. The requirements for admission into the business school are stringent, and the course load is comparable to UT, UC Berkley, uPenn, etc. Dallas elites have poured millions making sure that the SMU produces top-notch talent to the financial industry, whether that’s right or not is irrelevant. It’s also come to my attention that the new Alternative Asset Program is garnering the attention of major investment banks, which previously flew past DFW on the way to UT Austin to recruit candidates.

  • GreenPie

    Unfortunately, Lee Jackson is the reason why UNT won’t be great for a long time. His agenda continues to hold the university back and will continue to do so until UNT moves on. There is a reason why UNT doesn’t talk about its path to Tier One anymore or even site actual accomplishments in its yearly reports. It’s at a standstill because the focus is on growing the System and not the University. He ran out previous president for that very reason. Its state politics, cronyism and corruption at its finest. Walk down to Main Street Gardens downtown, that’s where the attention is.

  • Skip

    I love hearing TCU grads talk about how winning the Rose Bowl has done wonders for their school. Why does the school have such a bad ranking? TCU is Texas Tech for people who don’t want to live in Lubbock.

  • Teo Soares

    @Jason: If the goal is to bringt talent to Dallas, we’re better served with an SMU than with an MIT. Graduates from top universities tend to look for the top jobs in their fields, and they find those jobs in New York or California or D.C. Anecdotally, I can count in one hand the number of people I know who graduated from Yale and stayed in New Haven. And among the Rice grads I know, only those who went on to work for energy companies stayed in Houston. So while a top university might bring talent to Dallas for four years, I don’t think graduates would stay around unless they find attractive employment opportunities here. It might also, inadvertently, funnel Dallas-born talent away from the city if firms from Wall Street or Silicon Valley begin recruiting in Dallas.

    To attract and retain out-of-town talent, I think it’d be more effective to promote a business-friendly environment in North Texas. I actually have no idea what a “business-friendly environment” looks like, but I imagine it includes things like a low cost of living, cheap office space, a simplified bureaucracy, financial incentives from local governments, and incubators like Techwildcatters. And, of course, stockpiles of iProducts and fine Oregonian cheese.

  • @Teo: You need some stronger anecdotes. Everybody knows that New Haven (due to high crime) and Houston (general ickiness) are pretty awful places to live, their excellent universities aside.

    Dallas doesn’t, I like to think, suffer quite such severe disadvantages.

    And to claim that Dallas is better served by SMU than MIT? That just sounds like east-coast-elitism talking.

    As for your other points, we’ve got all that business-friendly stuff down pretty well. Why not a great school too? We’re sure not going to attractive the creative class with our beautiful scenery.

  • CollinBabs

    Right on @GreenPie – you’ve hit one of the nails on the head!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Teo Soares

    @Jason: I don’t know, the view from D’s office might be enough to bring me back to the city. All those parking lots? Can’t find a view like that in New York. (Actually, I probably could. Trouble would be affording it.)

    But we agree that whether talent stays in a city has less to do with the presence of a great university than with whether the town itself is an attractive place to live. I’m not gonna live in New Haven after graduation because the city is a hellhole. But while Dallas doesn’t suffer from severe disadvantages, it also doesn’t offer any serious advantages. Some Rice graduates brave the ickiness and stay in Houston because the city is the “Energy Capital of the World.” Dallas has no comparably appealing trait. It’s cheap and what not, but still not cheap enough to prevent talent from looking elsewhere, though it’s getting there. Zynga has an office here. (Which, I should note, was started by two guys who went to school in Florida.) Still, by and large, if I’m tech entrepreneur, I’m heading to Silicon Valley. If I’m interested in public policy, I’m heading to D.C. If I’m into finance, New York it is. A university could attract the creative class to Dallas, but a university alone wouldn’t keep it here.

    Part of the problem is that top universities are seldom locally minded, which is what I meant by my comment about SMU. Consider MIT’s mission statement: to educate students in the “areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.” Contrast that with SMU’s: to create and spread knowledge while “shaping individuals to contribute to their communities and excel in their professions in an emerging global society.” The word “global” is there, but only as far as it contextualizes how SMU grads will serve their communities. MIT’s mission, on the other hand, is to graduate people who will serve the world. (And MIT grads are not doing their world-serving in Cambridge, I’m pretty sure.) Hold all variables equal, and imagine SMU as a top-tier university. I have a hard time thinking its graduates would hang around Dallas.

    I don’t think a top university would be a bad thing. I’m all for it, actually. But if we want to attract talent to Dallas and keep it here, we should first focus on getting all that business-friendly stuff down to perfection.

  • MeanGreen

    UNT is certainly better than where they landed, as are most schools on the Forbes list (UT at 104 is a crying shame, s/b top 30). My MS @ UNT was much more difficult than my BS. I work along with grads from all the major Big XII schools and those with UNT degrees outperform most.