Texas Southern University Campus Entrance.
Texas Southern University Campus Entrance. Credit: 2C2K Photography

Texas Southern University is beginning the 2023-24 school year with record enrollment – more than 9,000 students have registered for the fall semester according to university officials. But that feat won’t matter come November when Texas’ public universities begin tapping into a lucrative state investment pool. That’s because TSU is NOT on the list to receive funding.

The Texas University Fund

In November, voters will decide on the Texas University Fund, a multibillion-dollar endowment to fund Texas’ emerging public research universities. Texas legislators approved the fund which will primarily benefit four of Texas’ public research universities: Texas Tech, the University of Houston, the University of North Texas and Texas State University.

If approved, the TUF will begin with a $3 bil investment from the Legislature, plus nearly $900 million that rolled over from an existing pool for emerging research universities, called the National Research University Fund. Emerging research universities have to have at least $45 mil in yearly research expenditures. The state has allocated amounts for each university to use toward endowments, and it will grow with yearly additions from the state’s rainy-day fund.

TSU does not qualify for the fund for a number of reasons, including the fact that the higher education board does not consider it a research institution. A declaration TSU regent James Benham vehemently disputes.

“We can point to tens of millions of dollars a year of research awards that prove that we are an institution of higher learning and an institution of research that is producing quality research that’s improving the lives of the constituents that we serve and the state of Texas. I think that perception has to change immediately,” Benham said.

Benham pointed to large increases in external funding requests for research, to $73.6 million from September 2022 to March 2023, up from $29.9 million in the same time a year before.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller says the university more closely aligns with a teaching mission.

“The intent is to make these universities more competitive, strong and vital, especially in areas that will be important for regional and state economic development,” Keller said. “We have more than 30 universities that are not close to the metrics for the TUF, but that’s not to say those institutions are less important or less than. I would again emphasize the diversity of our needs across the state.”

An alternative option

Benham believes taxpayer funding for the Texas University Fund should be equitably distributed across all state universities that don’t already have access to a state investment fund.

“A state funded endowment that’s funded by the general taxpayers of Texas should benefit all state funded institutions equally. You can share it based on current research dollars granted, or research faculty, etc. You could look at different metrics that you distribute, research and or endowment money with,” Benham said. “You could pick two or three or four measures by which you calculate the funding formula for each school to receive distributions from this research endowment. But it would seem to me that Texas would want all research institutions that also teach like Texas Southern, to have the opportunity to participate in a state funded research endowment. It would seem to me that they would want them to be able to participate equally because the smaller schools have the most to gain from participation in such a pond.”

In order to participate in the fund, a university has to meet certain criteria:

– Must have a $400 million endowment (TSU has a $80 mil endowment)

– Minimum of 200 Ph.D.s a year

– A Phi Beta Kappa honor society chapter.

Texas Southern is far from the $45 million level required for the endowment, but school officials are working diligently to move to “Research 1” status, a national classification that designates the highest possible level of research at a university. TSU holds a “Research 2” classification and is one of only 11 HBCUs to do so. Texas Southern hopes to become the first “Research 1,” or “R1,” HBCU.

“The hurdle to get into that $3 billion endowment is so high, that it will take us a substantial amount of time to even get there,” Benham said. “And how do you become a major research institution when you’re a small research institution? Well, you have endowments both publicly and privately funded that assists you in climbing the research ladder. It’s hard to climb that ladder when the bottom rungs aren’t there.”

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, who introduced the fund in Austin this spring, says TSU is free to join the endowment once it meets the criteria.

“As Texas Southern University is not eligible for the Permanent University Fund, TSU would be eligible to participate in the Texas University Fund should it meet metrics for qualification that are established in statute,” Huffman said.

The ‘system’ debate

TSU is the state’s only four-year institution not governed by a system, and many believe the institution is being punished for that. For many TSU advocates, the omission is just another slap in the face, and an example of a history of funding inequities at the university. Some believe the lack of inclusion is a direct result of TSU’s insistence on remaining independent. Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, whose district oversees TSU, is among those who want to see the HBCU remain independent.

“TSU was built for African Americans. It was supposed to be the university for people of color and for those reasons it needs to stay independent,” Miles said. “And it will stay independent.”

Uneven playing field?

Many had hoped TSU would be able to receive part of that funding since a legislative ask in February was denied. That’s when previous president, Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young made an unsuccessful appeal to legislators for $1 billion to expand academic, research and health and safety initiatives. That number far outpaced other schools and Benham said it was misunderstood by lawmakers. He said the university had to make such a huge request because it doesn’t have the benefit of a state endowment fund. TSU ultimately got $5 million from the $1 billion request.

Benham says while the fund has pretty much been decided, constituents can still make sure their voices are heard.

“All legislation can be amended. The constituents and interested parties who care about Texas Southern and the communities that we serve, or the students, faculty, and staff dedicate their lives to teaching and researching at our university, they should call their legislator and tell them that they want us to have a chance at participating equally in a state funded endowment,” Benham said.