The Proposed Future of UNT-Dallas: More Online Classes, Less Research

Tomorrow afternoon, Mark Cuban, Mayor Mike Rawlings, and Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen will walk into a room with a dozen other civic, academic, and business leaders for the sixth and final closed-door meeting of the 21st Century Commission to finalize their vision for the future of the University of North Texas at Dallas.

The panel has been been meeting for the past year to develop a plan to transform the school into a "New University Model" that will offer a high-quality, career-focused education at relatively low cost. Their discussions have been fueled by a pro-bono, three-and-a-half month study of the school and the higher education landscape by Bain & Company.

That's the broad outline. What exactly that might look like when on the ground has been an open question and still is, though the university did provide a hint with today's release of the commission's draft report, which will be voted up or down at tomorrow's meeting.

"Our role is not to prescribe the details of the new UNT Dallas curriculum and business model, but instead to support several promising directions for innovation, cost-effectiveness, and quality enhancement," the report states, meaning the recommendations won't get down into nitty-gritty detail.

What they do is flesh out a bit more the school's guiding philosophy. The commission, for example, wants the school to focus more heavily on teaching than a traditional university, meaning faculty will be doing less research and spending more time in the classroom. There will be a focus on getting students experience in the workforce through internships or mentoring programs with local companies. A year-round schedule, perhaps on a trimester system, will speed graduation and reduce costs.

None of those ideas are particularly revolutionary, but there are aspects of the plan that chip away more forcefully at the traditional university model. The commission wants a heavy emphasis on online learning, with entire degree programs relying heavily on material "available for rent or purchase in the marketplace or the public domain." Those degree programs won't be determined by some Socratic ideal of education but by what job opportunities are available in the Dallas area.

The very nature of faculty research will also change. The "scholarship component" of a professor's workload will be subject to approval by each department's chair, and a significant portion will be "related to the urban mission of UNT-Dallas and relevant to UNT-Dallas academic programs." Also, the administration "will consider practical market need and willingness of an employer partner to fund the scholarly work."

Perhaps the biggest change is that the university hopes to be completely self-sustaining without state support while charging $4,000 per semester. Whatever funding the state does chip in would be used for student programs or campus improvements. Getting to the point where that's a possibility won't be cheap: UNT-Dallas is looking to raise $40 million over the next five years.

These ideas have already received a lukewarm reception from a faculty panel, who, by the way, aren't terribly thrilled about the administration as a whole.

Mark Gottfriedson, a senior partner in Bain's Dallas office, said some "knee-jerk" opposition is to expected whenever there's change. Besides, the report says, "(t)he faculty and staff hired on here came with the knowledge that this was not going to be a traditional university."

Gottfiedson likens what's happening at UNT-Dallas to the development of the steel industry. Christianson, the Harvard Business School professor, likes to tell of how when mini-mills first came into the industry, they were ignored by larger operations. They made low-quality products with small margins, and the major producers were more than happy to cede that segment of the market. But then mini-mills developed the ability to produce higher-quality products for cheaper, and eventually changed the way the steel industry operates. The term of art is "disruptive innovation."

So while the Harvards and the Stanfords and the Yales will remain impervious to the market forces that are shaping UNT-Dallas, most other colleges won't. Gottfriedson thinks they, too, will adopt the reforms implemented at the only four-year university in Dallas proper. The hope is that here, with the university barely a decade old, the innovation won't be quite so disruptive.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson

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