Monday, January 05, 2009

University of Texas at Dallas

UT Dallas is not a household name in Malaysia. Indeed, it's not even a household name in the United States. Most people would associate UT (University of Texas) with its flagship campus in Austin, Texas. (One of my favorite cities in the US, I may add) I recently met an Indian student from UT Dallas who enlightened me about how important a research university UT Dallas actually is. I think UT Dallas holds interesting lessons for our own public universities in Malaysia.

According to Wikipedia, UT Dallas is actually the largest research university within the UT system, even larger than UT at Austin. But it's not that surprising given that UT Dallas started out as a research arm of Texas Instruments (TI), probably one of the most innovative large corporations in the US. UT Dallas started giving out graduate degrees before conferring undergrad degrees which might explain why the academic standards there are relatively high, especially for a state school that is not named Michigan or Berkeley.

There are strong collaborative roots between TI and UTD. This is best exemplified by the 3 billion dollar fab plant built by TI in 2004 on the campus grounds of UTD accompanied by a $85-million Natural Science and Engineering Research Building that was also built on the UTD campus by UTD. It seems that UTD has a number of serious looking research centers. And I'm guessing that these centers are not just website 'for show', unlike some of the research centers associated with certain public universities in Malaysia which also have websites associated with them but with far less research activity (not all of course, but a fair number).

I'm sure that there is good research being done in parts of our public university system which many of us are not aware of. But this kind of research environment takes years to create and requires a lot of funding, especially when it comes to the sciences and engineering. And it's not just about throwing money at a certain venture, which the Malaysian government and some VCs may be keen to 'promote'. It's got a lot to do with putting in the right people and also inculcating the right mentality and research culture.

For example, I was told by a friend that it is very risky to share your uncompleted research with colleagues in our public universities because it is very likely that your ideas or work in progress may be 'stolen' by others. Not the kind of culture that promotes research, to say the least.

The UTD example shows that you need a combination of factors to create an up and coming research university - a combination of private and public funding, a combination of public and private know-how, high intellectual standards, a long gestation in creating a culture of research, progressive leadership at the management level, just to name a few.

I think that among all of our public universities, USM actually has the best shot of making a jump into the league of respectable universities in Asia. They have a very progressive VC who has reached out to create some of the things discussed in this blog and in this post - a good research culture, encouraging public-private cooperation, high intellectual standards that is exemplified partly by transparent promotion exercises (by Malaysian standards anyways) and so on. It was no mistake that it was USM rather than UKM or UM that was awarded with the status of the 'Apex' university. I would encourage our VCs to try to get some of these basics right first rather than to aim for the more 'shallow' goal of getting back among the top 200 universities in the THES rankings or to produce the first Nobel prize winner by 2050. Just look at UTD. Nobody outside the US has heard of it. But the people who are involved in certain research areas most certainly are aware of this up and coming research university.

7 comments:

Derek said...

KM, The Minister's target to produce a Nobel Prize winner was by 2020.

I believe by 2050, it could be possible to have a Malaysian win the Nobel Prize but we will have to overhaul our entire education system to produce "thinkers" and not through "memorising".

Morover, for a Malaysian to win the Nobel Prize; he/she will have be based overseas as it is unlikely that a Nobel Prize type of Research would be conducted in Malaysia.

Again, to side track a bit, Malaysia's best chance of winning a Nobel Prize died at a tragic young age. It will many years before we find another person of his academic calibre.

I'm sure you know who I am talking about.

Anonymous said...

UT Dallas has been very aggressive recently in building up their programs. They have hired a lot of established faculty away from other top schools and these hires are starting to bear fruits. It is not a matter of whether it will become a top-notch school, it is only the question of when. Their president, who is from UIUC, intends to make the university a more comprehensive unversity, with strong focus in science and engineering. Their business school also has a lot of success recently, placing graduates at Notre Dame, UT Austin. Their new hires are mostly from Ivy league schools and it is not a secret in the research community that they are already a powerhouse.

I think people in Texas want a UT system that is comparable to the UC system. UT Austin is already at a saturation point from the development perspective. So I fully expect UT Dallas, as well as other campuses (most notably UT Arlington and UT San Antonio) to continue to grow. Interestingly, people may not think too highly about UT Pan American, UT El Paso, but they are actually very highly regarded in the hispanic community.

I think in Malaysia it is not easy to build a research-led public university unless meritocracy is fully embraced (duh!). Keeping in mind that relying on talents from Malaysia would not be enough. Given the current mindset of the people in charge, I just don't see that happening in the near future. I also expect in the next few decades, China is going to be a big magnet for talents from Asia, so Malaysia might have already missed its chance.

WY Kam 甘永元 said...

i think it s about time that malaysians and our politicians to stop thinking so BIG. let's start by having a comprehensive education/university systems that can produce consistent high quality bunch of graduates with good aptitude and attitude to begin with. All these talk about Nobel prizes and research-commercialisation just reaffirm my previous suspect that us, Malaysians, collectively often want to jump to the end-point, without any strong fundamentals and basis to back it up.

Anonymous said...

First, you actually believe an Indian from India?! Note, I am not being racist, but Indian from India (not our local ones) are known to blow things up to look damn nice when the real thing is just a small molehill.

And the "relative" word you used for academic standards says it all.

I think our UM may just be around their standards. Just that they know how to blow big better!

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that you take UT-Dallas as a model to emulate.
I used to hear a lot of news about UT-Dallas because, unfortunately, I happened to be in a spam email list of its former VP Research. That guy probably included almost every Chinese academics in the US and elsewhere in his spam list and would email about almost every small things that happened at UT-Dallas -- sort of like advertising or PR. Now he is in Taiwan and still doing the same, except that the emails are now about his new Taiwanese university.
In my opinion, Malaysia should use UT-Dallas as an example of what not to do -- hire expensive big shot scientists and still going nowhere. They hired a chemistry nobel prize winner who passed away not too long ago. Still, this is a 3rd tier university in the U.S. I don't think it is even ranked highly in the world ranking, if at all, even when they had this nobel prize winner and the big shot scientists.

mnajem said...

Texas has a very significant, quality state system in graduate research. Try to name - UTA, TAMU, UTD, El Paso etc.

Malaysians should go to US for their graduates study - just apply via their TA'ing/RA'ing financial assistance - do not wait for any other scholarship if you do not want to be bond with any contract later on.

Anonymous said...

I am a Malaysian working on my PhD at UTD. Its a fast growing school for sure. Got into Tier One last year and climbing. My research is also interesting and I am on RA scholarship. Having said that, the ECS school is very competitive. So working hard, working smart and some luck takes you there.