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Head of the Class: why we need a tier 1 university, and how unlv will get us there

Written By:

Greta Beck-Seidman

Transformative testing and life-changing diagnostics that have revolutionized the way science and medicine view the role genes play in human disease. Software that routes increasing web traffic more efficiently with less interruption for end users. New microscope technology with applications in everything from defense technology to eyewear. These companies, so different in vision, expertise, scale and industry, have one significant commonality: they were formed and developed from research conducted at Tier 1 research universities.

What is a Tier 1 Research university?

Tier 1, or a "Very High Research" classification, earned by a university from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions, is regarded as the gold standard for objective ranking of an institution's degree-granting and research capacity. The designation of Tier 1 is reserved for the top 2.3 percent of all colleges and universities in the United States (about 100 universities).

University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) has activated a comprehensive business plan to reach Tier 1 status. It currently holds a Tier 2, or "High Research," university classification from Carnegie, setting it among the top 200 (or the top 4.5 percent) of roughly 4,600 U.S. colleges and universities. It would be Nevada's first Carnegie-designated Tier 1 research university. "The Tier 1 initiative is part of our longstanding campus strategic plan to enter the top 100 American research universities," says Don Snyder, interim president of UNLV. "Getting there means we're enhancing educational outcomes for our students, adding faculty in areas tied to economic development, boosting our research and development capacity, and producing the highly-qualified workforce that will help move our state forward," adds John Valery White, executive vice president and provost of UNLV.

What Will It Do?

Tier 1 research universities drive major economic impact in their respective regions, and help keep the United States globally competitive. They attract considerable investments in both federal and private funds, as well as top talent in science, math, engineering and other high-development, high-research-yielding fields. In fact, economic impact analysis conducted as part of the UNLV Tier 1 initiative indicates that a Tier 1 classification could double - or even triple - UNLV's current $1.5 billion dollar impact on the state through:

  • Attracting new and emerg- ing industries by providing research and educational support, as well as a valuable community partnership, to their employment and work- force needs Producing a highly-qualified workforce, helping to attract new businesses to the area and providing them with employees that will fit their needs
  • Expanding the Las Vegas area's export economy
  • Bringing in large federal grants and private industry contracts
  • Creating patents and business startups
  • Drawing in highly competitive students from around the world

Tier 1 universities are engines of enterprise, innovation and job creation. Sparking Economic Growth 2.0, a report released from the Science Coalition in October 2013, underscores the importance of federally-funded university research for entire communities. "While only a small fraction of the new companies formed each year, university research spin-offs are creating jobs and contributing to the economy in significant ways," the report details. It moves on to analyze 100 companies formed as a result of university research: "The companies are predominantly small businesses with fewer than 100 employees - but collectively, they employ more than 7,200 people. These companies are also contributing to the local economies surrounding research universities; 89 out of 100 are located close to their founding university."

53 percent of basic research in the United States is completed at research universities, and Tier 1 universities average 12 patents/startups per year. Startups based from university research are more likely to become successful companies and employ higher- educated workers to service the ongoing technological and development needs of their companies. They are also much more likely to base their business close to the university where the research originated. Simply put: without a Tier 1 designation to attract and support this type of research, Las Vegas and Nevada will not be destinations for these highly competitive hubs of research, innovation and enterprise and the people who comprise them.

For established businesses in Southern Nevada, having a Tier 1 research university benefits everything from educating future workforce and better anticipating future employment needs to the overall quality of life within the region. Throughout the country, research universities are large employers and major consumers of local goods and services. Because university research has impacted everything from how we treat tinnitus to the way we map out genes to determine likelihood of cancer, the quality and depth of health care systems in Tier 1 communities are higher than in non-Tier 1 communities, evident in peer cities such as Phoenix and Orlando. Communities around research universities become hotbeds of innovation activity, where an increase in local educated workforce and a strong innovative and entrepreneurial presence generated at the university level leads to a more robust, well-rounded local economy.

UNLV, recognizing the importance of research- based startups, has already begun taking steps to ensure its competitiveness within the national university system. "The university has tripled the number of patents filed from last year," reports Snyder. White supplements, "We have been focused on developing academic and research programs that are based on innovation, collaboration and community impact. Innovation meaning being technologically and intellectually cutting-edge; collaboration meaning we will cross traditional disciplinary silos and be creative and dynamic; community impact meaning we are engaged with the business, cultural, social service and quality of life needs of our community." Ongoing partnerships with organizations and entities like the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED) have continued to yield positive, collaborative outcomes; just one example is GOED basing a tech commercialization manager on the UNLV campus.

Many of the economic develop- ment sectors outlined in the Governor's Plan for Economic Development involve academic programs that exist on the UNLV campus, and have the potential to be developed and enhanced through a Tier 1 classification. UNLV's lauded gaming and hospitality program could be positioned as the intellectual global gaming center with programs in gaming innovation and education. UNLV was also a major partner in Nevada's selection as an FAA research and training site for unmanned aerial systems, and has the potential to yield significant results from ongoing research and development on a university level. Both gaming and aerospace are clusters of economic development identified by the Governor's Plan for Economic Development. These programs have immense possibility for commercialization, patents, new businesses and economic diversity throughout the region. Further supporting the development of these clusters at a Tier 1 level is a recent white paper prepared by UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research, "The Potential Impact of UNLV as a Tier 1 Research Institution." It affirms, "For most of the targeted industry clusters, there is a very close relationship between the dominance of the industry in a metropolitan [area] and the strength of related programs at Tier 1 institutions in the surrounding areas. The relationship is particularly strong in the knowledge-driven industries related to health and medical services, aspects of business IT ecosystems, unmanned aerial vehicles, [and] industrial banks."

Snyder sums up the potential for a Tier 1 university in Las Vegas nicely: "Tier 1 universities yield huge returns on state and community investments in higher education. UNLV already adds more than $1 billion to our state's economy each year, and through the type of strategic infrastructure growth and strengthening research partnerships that come with Tier 1 status, investing in higher education has never been more important."

How Will We Get There?

UNLV tracked comparable Tier 1 universities in peer cities, including University of Oregon, University of Utah, University of Colorado, Boulder and Arizona State University, to develop a game plan. UNLV will need to generate significant resources, both human and financial, to be able to compete at a Tier 1 level. The university has set several benchmarks for these requirements, as well as an aggressive but attainable five, ten, and twenty-year plan for the Tier 1 initiative. "UNLV is working diligently at something we've never had the chance to do before, which is real academic strategic planning. This means really looking at what degree programs and faculty research programs the state and region - our students and our business leaders - identify as essential to the future of Southern Nevada economic prosperity, quality of life and cultural development," explains White.

To become a Tier 1 institution, UNLV would need a sizable increase in sponsored research per year of $80 million, as well as double the amount of current grant and contract dollars per faculty member, per year. The classification would also require UNLV to pursue a $7 million increase per year in patent and licensing revenue. The goals are not all monetary, either. UNLV has set a performance target of a 20 percent improvement in six-year undergraduate graduation rates, as well as 100 more research doctorates graduating per year.

UNLV has a source structure in place for addressing the funding gaps that currently exist within the university that would need to be filled to attain Tier 1 status. These funding gaps include the expense associated with an additional 300 faculty members, 2 million gross square feet in additional research space, and a $20- $40 million annual increase in capital investment. Funding sources for these gaps include a $300 million increase in endowment, a $20 million increase in annual revenue from contracts and licenses, a $60 million increase in annual gifts, and a $30 million restoration in state funding, which equivocates to about 40 percent of what was cut in response to the recession and retrenchment. If these gaps are filled and the financial targets are achieved, UNLV would already impact the economy by more than $3 billion - double its current impact to the region and the state. "As we anticipate the restoration of public investment and community investment in building a Tier 1 research university that the region and state have never had and which we would all benefit from, we at UNLV on the academic side have been doing our part to prepare to be active partners in those developments," explains White. "We've been building and rebuilding the soft infrastructure - restoring our faculty morale, improving our research culture, updating our policies and our management and business processes - so that we can be the flexible, creative, dynamic academic partner and intellectual leader the region needs."

The designation doesn't only impact UNLV and future students. It has the potential to skyrocket Southern Nevada's impact on the global economy, as well as its relevance to leading and emerging industries. Everyone in Southern Nevada - individuals, businesses, families, students and visitors - stands to benefit from the classification. It's a bold, empowering goal for our region and one that everyone with a stake in Southern Nevada, from business owners and employers to families with small children, needs to support. It will take community- wide support and effort to make Tier 1 a reality and put UNLV at the head of the class.