December 18, 2008
Last Saturday night, Liz and I went to Dallas for an annual get together. An event, really – a great, great, massive party.
There were a couple of bands, and they worked through a catalog of songs that leaned heavily on the best kind of Rock ‘N’ Roll – the 1970’s kind. Ah, the music of my youth.
In fact, it was the music of the youths of the band members and about 95% of the folks at this shindig. It was a blast to watch this crowd of gray-haired (of course, a lot of it was dyed), slightly sagging (of course, some of these folks, shall we say, have “had a little work done”), slightly overweight (some were very overweight) grown-ups singing (some might have called it screaming) the songs they loved as kids.
It was cool to see the excitement from a song start boiling up until people couldn’t help themselves and they rushed the dance floor. Just like in … oh, let’s be generous and say 1976.
And then, they started dancing. Really getting down. Full out. No holding back. Muscle memory ignited. All the old moves rushing out.
The dance floor was packed and moving like crazy …
For the first part of the song.
Then, although the old rockers on stage were playing with the same tempo, beat, and fervor, things on the floor seemed to slow down. It was almost imperceptible at first, but before long you could see that these weren’t exactly kids anymore. And then, by mid-song, a big chunk of the dancing mob had slowed to almost a full stop.
By this rather sad point in the trip down Memory Lane, people were on the dance floor, but only sort of shuffling their feet, sort of swaying, and clapping their hands to the songs. Those that weren’t completely winded were singing.
But you had to be impressed by those who had enough spirit (or spirits) to actually get up and try to make it through a whole song more than once.
On campus, students could take a class in activities that looked remarkably like dancing. The courses weren’t called “dance” courses. They were called courses in “rhythmic movement.”
People joke a lot about Baylor’s relationship with dancing. But the truth is that it’s a great school where people can get a great education.
Texas has a lot of great schools like that, with a lot of very smart kids running through every piece of the education pipeline – from community colleges to universities to nursing schools, law schools, medical schools and on and on.
What we don’t have, though, is enough top-tier, nationally recognized, “flagship” universities.
The definitions can be tricky, but for now, let’s give the label “flagship university” to campuses that are highly ranked in national surveys and well-regarded in academia and industry, and that do at least $100 million in research every year.
That’s not nearly enough, given the population and the needs we have right now. Comparing Texas with New York (eight flagships with fewer people) and California (50 percent more people, 300 percent more flagships) is worrisome. And considering all that’s coming our way – the people, the technological challenges, the need for highly skilled labor, the vital economic importance of innovation and research – it’s positively terrifying.
Longtime Watson Wire readers might remember a dispatch two years ago about how important I think this is. You also might remember a bill I filed two years ago, in my first legislative session, that would have created a process for adding at least one more flagship university and maybe more.
Well, my bill stalled in the House of Representatives. I worked pretty hard to get it added to a larger bill on higher education, and that one actually passed both houses of the legislature – only to get vetoed after we all went home.
So it’s time for another crack at this. Last month, on the first day that bills could be filed for the 81st Legislative Session, I filed S.B. 185. The bill proposes a commission that would work with regions across the state, look to leverage public money, and try to utilize local assets in ways that could elevate great schools to flagship universities as cheaply as possible.
This process would require almost no money to initiate. Yet it would put the state on a path to opening top-flight classrooms to tens of thousands more Texans every year while pumping enormous intellectual creativity and innovation into the economy.
If anyone doubts how breathtaking the transformation would be, look at Austin. It grew from a sleepy government town into a 21st Century technological and economic powerhouse – largely through education and expertise that the University of Texas produced and attracted.
There are great colleges and universities in Houston, Dallas, Arlington, Denton, Lubbock, San Antonio, El Paso, and other cities and towns across the state. They’re working hard to educate our kids, and they’re doing well. They deserve the resources that would allow them to break new ground, spin off new technologies, and invent new products that will propel Texas through this century. And we need to support them in a way that doesn’t punish UT or A&M – schools that have done so much to provide opportunity to so many generations.
We can embrace this future, or be overwhelmed by it. Between just 1980 and 2000 – 20 years – Texas’ population grew from 14 million people to nearly 23 million. In the next 25 years, it’s expected to approach 35 million at the very time the world economy is transitioning. The idea that we can get by with just UT and A&M, universities that were chartered in the Texas Constitution, is absurd.
Our growth – our future – represents a massive challenge. But it’s also our single greatest opportunity.
Let’s go get it.
I hate to deliver such distress so early in the morning, but this is the last Watson Wire of 2008. I’ll be celebrating Christmas and the holidays with family over the next couple of weeks.
So please come back in January. The session starts on the 13th. It’s like a dance party … without everyone singing the same song.