University of North Texas leaders say they are optimistic about the state Legislature ponying up more money for the university system than ever before, thanks in no small part to the productivity of the university’s work as a Carnegie Tier 1 Research Institution.
UNT President Neal Smatresk recently briefed the UNT Faculty Senate on the forecast for state allotments. While the details are still in the hands of state legislators currently in the 88th session, Smatresk said UNT has made an impression.
“So, the good news is we just received our initial results of the Higher Education Coordinating Board’s recommendation for formula funding,” he said.
The board’s recommendation isn’t binding, and it “may or may not be fully realized for any number of reasons,” Smatresk said. “It’s never been funded 100%. It’s funded usually from 86% to 87%.
“But the good news is no school in the state received a bigger increase in their recommended formula allocation that we did. The bad news is we’re not sure what that’s going to translate into because there’s so many different legislative initiatives ... that we have to negotiate through.”
Smatresk delivered more good news: Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Legislature to create new endowments for universities that have endured funding gaps.
“I recommend the 88th Legislature create permanent endowments for the emerging research universities that do not currently have access to the Permanent University Fund,” Abbott wrote in his budget proposal. “[Including] $1 billion each for the University of Houston and Texas Tech University, as well as new resources for Texas State University and the University of North Texas.”
The state’s constitution prohibits UNT from getting money from the Permanent University Fund, an endowment that feeds $31 billion to the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems. The endowment’s largesse is the legacy of the fabulous wealth generated by West Texas oil fields and mineral rights.
UNT and other public Texas universities wouldn’t turn down a slice of that platinum-plated pie, but that kind of access can only come with a constitutional amendment. As he campaigned last year, Abbott said there’s no appetite for such an amendment.
Smatresk said UNT leaders are optimistic about a bump in research funding.
“We’re hoping we get legislative action prior to the end of the regular session for increased research funding, still performance-based,” he said.
Smatresk said that should the funding come through, it could be applied to offset current research costs as well as finding expanded research. He said there’s a good chance that UNT will land the funding.
“I won’t float a number because we’re still in session, and there could be some political pingpong going on,” he said. “But it’s a big number, a good number. And it’s one we believe will be sustainable. It’s not like you get it for two years and then it’s gone.”
Smatresk said the bill’s current language sets out a 10-year funding cycle before a sunset review would come into play.
UNT’s legislative liaisons and top administrators have been talking about research initiatives, grants and projects “to anyone who’ll listen.” He said state Sens. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, and Drew Springer, R-Muenster, are showing a lot of support for UNT. Springer is an alumnus.
“We’ve never had legislative support like we have this session,” Smatresk said.
The support counts as UNT continues its growth.
“We’re the fourth-largest school in the state. I think it’s likely we’ll overtake Houston in the next two to four years as the third-biggest school in the state,” Smatresk said. “We are the highest-ranking Carnegie Tier 1 institution in North Texas. And our [general revenue] funding per student is 36th out of 37 public universities. Anybody think that’s equitable?
“So we have made our case, and it’s being heard. We’ve asked for $25 million a year going forward. We’re calling it flagship equity. That’s good money. We’re getting a lot of hints, but not a yes.”
Smatresk said bills still have to be filed and moved into committee.
“I feel really positive about the research funding. I’m feeling pretty good about the flagship equity,” he said. But he advised caution.
“I don’t want you all to think, ‘Oh, happy days are here again,’ because so many things can go awry between now and the end of the session. But I’m just saying we’re in there, and we’re asking,” Smatresk said.
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