UTSA: The UCLA of the UT System?

“University of California,” the phone operator on the other end of the line greeted UCLA Chancellor Franklin Murphy. UCLA had come a long way towards distinguishing itself as a top-tier university, independent in its own right from the flagship campus in Berkeley (then simply known as “The University of California”). Yet, resistance towards its development was common among the UC Regents. Many believed that Berkeley should stand head and shoulders above the other UC schools, including UCLA.

“Is this Berkeley?” the chancellor asked, to which the operator responded “No.” “Well who have I gotten to?” he inquired. “UCLA.” “Why didn’t you say ‘UCLA’?” “Oh,” the operator paused, “we’re instructed to say ‘University of California’.” Taken aback, Chancellor Murphy made a point of it to instruct all phone operators to say “UCLA” from then on.

Murphy knew then what UTSA has just recently discovered: forming a unique identity is crucial for a university’s success. If UCLA was to continue to brand itself part of the University of California, it would merely be seen as a branch of the more powerful Berkeley.

When it was created in 1969, UTSA was simply viewed by the UT Regents as a satellite of UT Austin, intended to serve the local community much like UCLA in its early years. In fact, it was only two years before UTSA’s founding that UT Austin was officially titled “The University of Texas,” a nickname it retains to this day.

There are many similarities between the development experienced by the University of California, Los Angeles and what lies ahead for the University of Texas at San Antonio. Taken at face value, both universities couldn’t be more different. UCLA is a bustling hub of research activity, a reflection of the prestigious University of California System. UTSA, on the other hand, is young and vying for national recognition.

Yet, both grew up under the auspices of a powerful flagship institution: the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin, respectively. President Romo made a comparison between the development of the UC System and UTSA in an interview with the Texas Tribune last year – citing all the esteemed public schools that are now in California, such as UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Irvine, among others.

Both UTSA and UCLA had to fight fiercely for serious recognition from system regents. In fact, it wasn’t until 1993 that UTSA and other “satellite” Texas schools successfully convinced the Texas Legislature to adequately fund public universities in the area. Prior to that, UT Austin was the only gem in the eyes of the legislature.

UTSA has now grown to become a regional powerhouse, attracting more students from outside of San Antonio than inside the city (most notably Houston and the Valley). Yet, the next step – moving from statewide recognition to national prominence – is a lofty goal. US News and World Report already places UTSA among its Tier Two national universities; but breaching the top tier will prove to be our greatest challenge as a university community.

It won’t be a seamless path, but UTSA’s transition to Tier One is inevitable. California has nine Tier One universities (1 per 4.2 million people). Texas only has three undisputed Tier One institutions (1 per 8.7 million people).

With Michelle Obama’s visit to campus later this week, it’s obvious that UTSA has garnered national attention. People are watching, and its time for the University of Texas at San Antonio to become the next shining star of the UT System.

Danny Khalil is a graduating senior at UTSA who will be attending the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin this fall to study education policy.