By Pablo Villa
UTEP’s research promise has paid off with an R1 designation. Now, the campus looks to continue the momentum by drawing on its strengths.
With a deft pen stroke, UTEP President Diana Natalicio staked a significant mile marker in the progress of the most recent stark physical transformation on The University of Texas at El Paso campus.
On Feb. 11, 2019, President Natalicio affixed her signature to an orange flag adorned with a rooster to celebrate the “topping out” — the completion of the major structural elements — of the Interdisciplinary Research Building (IDRB). The $85 million, 150,000-square-foot facility is undergoing construction and is expected to open in 2020. When completed, the sleek addition to the campus’ western fringe will overlook the “Mining Minds” pickaxe sculpture at the University Avenue roundabout. More importantly, it will enhance the level and capability of research conducted on campus.
Construction of a gleaming, new structure devoted to research would be the featured cause célèbre of most university campuses during a given academic year. For UTEP it is one of a pair of highly visible changes. The other notable distinction is unseen but undeniably perceptible: the fall 2019 semester marks the first time UTEP enters a full academic year with its designation as an R1 top tier research university in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. UTEP is one of only 131 (4.5%) universities among the 2,883 four-year higher education institutions across the U.S. to earn this distinction. UTEP was recognized with this prominent designation in December 2018.
“This Carnegie R1 classification strongly validates UTEP’s success in delivering on our innovative access and excellence mission, which places a high priority on ensuring that research excellence always be accompanied by a deep and sustained access commitment,” President Natalicio said. “The R1 designation also powerfully affirms the stature of UTEP faculty researchers, the quality of their innovative work, and their competitiveness in securing funding to support it. Our faculty understand that engaging our students,
both graduate and especially undergraduate, in this growing research activity at UTEP provides outstanding learning opportunities for our students and raises their aspirations
to pursue advanced degrees and research careers.”
The Climb to R1
UTEP’s arrival at this juncture has been incremental, steady and strategic, with the advantage of strong and visionary central leadership throughout the past 30 years.
The Carnegie Classification process analyzes higher education institutions in the United States on the basis of such factors as research expenditures, undergraduate and graduate instructional programs, enrollment profile, size and setting, and basic classification. The Carnegie Classification has been a framework that has recognized and described U.S. higher education institutions for more than 45 years. The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education’s unique classification system of colleges and universities supports its program of research and policy analysis and is an important framework widely used in the study of institutions of higher education.
When President Natalicio began her tenure as UTEP’s leader in 1988, the University boldly set a goal of expanding the scope and quality of research activity and increasing the number of doctoral programs. Since then, annual research expenditures have grown from $6 million to $95 million, and doctoral degree options have increased from a single program in geology to 22 programs offered by all colleges and schools across the campus.
Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D., vice president for research, has played a key leadership role in this UTEP research success story. Under his guidance, the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects has provided strong and creative support to faculty and staff members as they prepare their proposals and, once funded, as they conduct the research and manage the myriad accounting and reporting documentation requirements.
“We are honored and energized by UTEP’s designation as a Carnegie R1 top tier institution,” Osegueda said. “UTEP is committed to recruiting and fostering the development of outstanding faculty members, nearly two-thirds of whom are now engaged in externally funded research activity. Because of their efforts, UTEP ranks third in federal research spending per tenured and tenure-track faculty members among all public universities in Texas, after UT Austin and Texas A&M. This R1 status reflects UTEP’s abiding commitment to excellence in our education and research mission, and in the quality of our faculty and graduates. We are confident this recognition will bolster our ongoing efforts to drive innovation and technology through high-level research, and augment the El Paso-Juárez region’s economic development efforts.”
John S. Wiebe, Ph.D., UTEP’s interim provost, said faculty, staff and students have all had a hand in the research feat, which UTEP attained through a stoic doggedness that befits an institution with a unique student demographic.
“It’s remarkable that we have been able to realize a collective vision of a new model for the national research university – one that doesn’t sacrifice access in the name of excellence, but instead pursues excellence in the service of access,” Wiebe said. “It has taken ingenuity, dedication to student success, and a whole lot of hard work.”
Reaping the Benefits
With the growth of the research enterprise at UTEP have come benefits for its students.
The R1 designation is relevant to the more than 25,000 students on campus partly because it enhances the value of their degrees. This formal distinction puts UTEP in a class of institutions with international name recognition.
“When students apply to graduate school or major employers, that name recognition translates into opportunities for the students,” Wiebe said. “Meanwhile, the progress behind the designation is important because it allows our students access to enriched academic experiences — chances to earn money on campus while they apply what they learn in classes to their work in externally funded research labs, and chances to attend top-notch doctoral programs here in El Paso.”
Wiebe added that the El Paso region also benefits from having a top tier doctoral research university. UTEP’s research strength is critical to the economic development of the region, both from a technological standpoint and in preparation for the steadily evolving workforce needs of the 21st century.
“The R1 designation is relevant to the community for many of the same reasons it is relevant to our students,” Wiebe said. “First and foremost, the vast majority of our students are in the community. In addition, the University is a major economic driver for the region. Its success and prominence brings international attention to the community, along with financial investment from the state and federal governments, major foundations, corporations and other sources.”
UTEP newly elected Student Government Association President Jessica Martinez said part of the organization’s mission is to work closely with President Natalicio and other UTEP administrators to enhance opportunities for the campus’ diverse student population.
“The Student Government Association serves as the official governing body of students at UTEP,” Martinez said. “SGA promotes students’ engagement in both academic (curricular) and co- curricular pursuits. We are extremely proud of the hard work of the faculty, staff, and students in achieving this top tier designation. With this designation, students now have access to more opportunities to receive grants, apply for greater student employment opportunities, and even participate in student travel professional development experiences in research and non-research areas. This designation ties in directly with the University’s mission of access and excellence. Students from our community, at the graduate and especially undergraduate level, regardless of their personal background, have access to top research activity extremely close to home. UTEP provides the tools to prepare us for our future careers and endeavors. With our excellent faculty and staff, degree and research opportunities, and a strong emphasis on student success, UTEP graduates have a competitive edge.”
What Lies Ahead
Reaching R1 status is undoubtedly a significant milestone. But much as the flourish of ink marked a mere point in UTEP’s journey in February, University leaders are well aware that the campus’ newly gained position represents an objective reached and not a journey’s end.
After all, the classification is reconsidered every three years. Institutions continually are added and removed from the top tier. For UTEP, it’s imperative that the focus remains on the recruitment and retention of faculty who have research potential, and to maintain a commitment to the historically underserved students of the Paso del Norte region.
“It needn’t require any major qualitative shift in our strategy, the people we serve, or the people we employ,” Wiebe said. “Of course, we must constantly evolve as an institution to stay vital and relevant, but we must remain focused on the institutional mission. What we can do is remain vigilant for pockets of opportunity on campus, where faculty are building innovative educational or research programs that give the University a strategic advantage. We can leverage resources to support those efforts and build excellence.
“It’s important to maintain the progress that we’ve made as an institution for so many reasons. While the designation is noteworthy, it is really just a marker of progress on our larger institutional mission to provide opportunities to students who might not otherwise have them. We must continue a positive trajectory in external funding and doctoral education, along with the other vital aspects of our mission.”
UTEP Research Areas
Health, Engineering and Biomedical Sciences
The U.S.-Mexico border region constitutes a unique physical, social, cultural and economic environment that is made more distinct by its proximity to transnational flows of resources and population groups. These unique factors have contributed to health problems and regional population disparities in health- related services and outcomes. Researchers at UTEP are leading the way for innovative solutions to key border health issues and to address Hispanic health disparities.
Energy and Environment
With millions of dollars awarded to fund research projects in the fields of energy and the environment, UTEP is at the forefront of technologies that will power the future and have an immediate and lasting economic impact in the Paso del Norte region. UTEP’s world-class research teams will give students the chance to gain real-world experience through exciting and innovative partnerships and research grants, and to work toward solutions that could sustain and improve the quality of life.
Global Enterprise and Border Studies
UTEP’s border location makes it an ideal venue to study the causes and consequences
of globalization. UTEP’s Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness assesses the impact of border economics on commerce and energy. Other research conducted at UTEP provides essential data to area commerce leaders and the region’s public utilities and government branches. Data provided by UTEP’s Border Region Modeling Project provides decision-makers with a forecast of the economic conditions they will experience in the region.
National Defense and Border Security
National defense and border security are critical on a regional level, and are of utmost importance on a global level. The University’s unique position along the U.S.-Mexico border and next to one of the world’s largest military installations – Fort Bliss – make it an ideal location to advance knowledge in defense and security. This research helps meet the needs of agencies responsible for the protection, safety and creation of future economic integration opportunities throughout the Paso del Norte region.
Education for the 21st Century Demographic
UTEP will continue to provide opportunities to all students, regardless of income or background. The University also educates roughly two-thirds of all of the teachers in the region, so in addition to research and programs to provide the best chance for our students’ success, being at the forefront of educational research is vital. UTEP’s focus on education for the 21st century demographic extends to a broader mission to help the nation recognize the extraordinary talent within the Hispanic populations.