But the two young institutions took very different paths. UTSA also grew to 29,000 students, but spent its early decades as a commuter college catering to the region’s low-income and underserved students, with little emphasis on research and graduate programs until recent years.
Many say UTSA’s focus on access was - and is - appropriate and necessary.
But some professors from the early years say a lack of money and vision stunted UTSA’s development.
Until the 1990s, the flagship UT-Austin was the only belle at the ball in the eyes of state lawmakers and university regents. A lawsuit prodded them to funnel more money to South Texas and border institutions, and overcrowding at UT-Austin forced them to build up more Tier One research universities.
"We were getting some lofty language in the beginning, but we knew we were an impoverished stepsister to Austin in those days," said Judith Sobre, an art history professor at UTSA since 1974.
But now Texas is trying to catch up, and UTSA and six other up-and-coming universities have another shot at Tier One research status.
In spite of Texas’ famous independent streak, many lawmakers and education leaders are looking to California as a model.
Unlike Texas, California has one unified higher education system, and most of its top universities are paired with medical schools, which greatly boost institutions’ overall research capacity.
Though California is suffering devastating budget cuts, the fact remains that the state boasts nine Tier One research universities, six of them UC institutions. Texas has only three - UT-Austin, Texas A&M University in College Station and Rice University in Houston.
Richard Tapia, an engineering professor at Rice University, is on a panel exploring whether it would benefit the UT System to merge UTSA with the UT Health Science Center.
"I often ask myself, ‘How could we have built Snow White and left the rest alone?’?" Tapia said. "Suffice it to say, (Texas) didn’t show the correct wisdom in the early days of designing."
‘MIT with palm trees’
During the postwar boom of the late 1950s, UC regents and the California State Board of Education designed a public higher education system with three tiers - community colleges, state universities and the University of California. The lower tiers focused on teaching while UC specialized in research, medicine and doctoral education.
Though Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Francisco were the established flagships at the time, regents intended that all 10 campuses be world-class.
UC-San Diego was founded in 1960 on the ocean bluffs of La Jolla, but its story began in 1903, when zoology Professor William Ritter founded Scripps. The institution gained prominence during World War II when the Navy needed submarine technology. It continued hauling in federal grants during the Sputnik era.
Folded into the UC System in 1912, the institute provided a seed for the full-fledged university.
"The (Scripps) faculty recruited faculty for the larger university," said Richard Atkinson, former president of UC and chancellor of UCSD. "These were people who had every honor you could imagine, no end of awards. They had this view that you had to recruit the very best."
The emphasis on groundbreaking research colored the whole enterprise. Roger Revelle, director of Scripps, was among the first scientists to study global warming and the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates, while founding faculty at the medical school specialized in cellular and molecular biology, an obscure field at the time, Atkinson said.
"That turned out to be a bonanza for the future of medicine and, in turn, for the future of the university," he said.
Today, the university has grown into a national research powerhouse and has turned San Diego into a magnet for biotechnology.
The institution spends $842 million per year on research, and faculty and alumni have started 193 companies, including telecommunications giant Qualcomm.
"We didn’t just start from scratch," said Paul Drake, UCSD’s vice chancellor for academic affairs. "The place from Day 1 had an image of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) with palm trees. That helped us move forward pretty fast."
But the path wasn’t always paved with sunshine. The university fought land wars, fended off jealousy from other UC campuses and struggled with town-gown relations.
Jews were blocked from buying property in La Jolla, a wealthy retirement community, forcing UC to buy up land around the university so Jewish professors would have somewhere to live. During the Vietnam War, friction exploded between San Diego’s conservative military residents and anti-war activists on campus.
Kneeling at the altar of research, the university paid little mind to sports and social life, and to this day many students complain of feeling isolated. Last month, a fraternity threw a party mocking black stereotypes, outraging minority students.
Administrators are trying to quell tensions and fund programs that build cohesion, but it couldn’t come at a worse time.
State lawmakers have slashed UC’s budget by $813 million, forcing San Diego and other campuses to clamp down hard on spending, raise tuition and turn away students, actions that have sparked protests across the state.
"The state is in a disaster. It is a tragedy what is happening," Atkinson said. "Some people predict the demise of the University of California."
Unlike California’s unified system, higher education in Texas evolved as a hodgepodge of locally controlled community colleges and multiple university systems, each governed by its own board. Medical schools grew independently of universities, with no real thought given to merger.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is responsible for orchestrating the various systems to work together for the good of the state, but state lawmakers find it fairly easy to make a political end run around the board. They need only enough votes to establish a new campus or university in their district to overcome the board’s objections.
Political savvy and influence often dictate which institutions will flourish and advance.
Born into this environment in 1969, UTSA boosters were bolstered by a legislative mandate that the new school be a "university of the first class." Early professors envisioned doctoral programs and research projects that spanned international borders.
"The first year, they were throwing all kinds of grandiose stuff on us," said Sobre, the art history professor. "We had an unlimited library budget and we were ordering books like drunken sailors."
One of the university’s first presidents was Peter Flawn, a dapper and charismatic Yale graduate who held sway with regents and lawmakers.
He hired a cadre of stellar faculty from across the country, and there was talk of a student union, daily newspaper, dormitories and a football team. Kenneth Ashworth, former commissioner of the Coordinating Board, served as Flawn’s executive vice president.
"When we were opening, we were in a buyers’ market," Ashworth said. "The major universities in the country were overproducing graduates and jobs were really hard to come by. We could pick the cream of the crop."
But in 1977, lawmakers sharply cut funding for the new university, leaving half-filled library shelves and shattered dreams. Flawn resigned within the year, and later went on to become president of UT-Austin. Many professors also left, moving on to universities where they could do research. James Wagener took over as president, and the university plodded toward regional commuter college status.
"UTSA began to look inward at that point. It was a very sad time for those of us who had had this great vision for UTSA," said Jacinto Quirarte, founding dean of UTSA’s College of Fine Arts.
In 1987, Hispanic advocacy organizations sued the state of Texas for discrimination in higher education, forcing the state to funnel more money to South Texas institutions, including UTSA. Samuel Kirkpatrick took over as president around that time, and the university’s prospects began to pick up, according to the professors.
Ricardo Romo’s arrival as president in 1999 ushered in greater strides for UTSA, and the once dreamed-of amenities came to pass - money for research, laboratories, dormitories, a recreation center, a student union and football.
Today, the university is in a flat-out sprint to become a national research university, but it still has a long road ahead.
Research spending is at $46 million per year, and the number of doctoral programs sits at 21.
No fork in the road
Lawmakers have refused to choose one or two institutions as Tier One heirs apparent, knowing such a bill would quickly die.
But last year, they cobbled together somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million to fund the Tier One effort over many years, setting specific criteria and allowing the seven emerging research universities to compete for the title, said Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. It’s not enough, and the money will be spread thin, but it’s a good start.
"To me, it was a rational and creative response to where Texas was. It is something that fits our culture," Branch said.
Other universities, such as the University of Houston and Texas Tech University, are far ahead of UTSA in research and doctoral programs, raising questions about whether the school missed an opportunity in the early years to gain ground.
"Had we been able to fund South Texas universities 10 years earlier, I can’t help but think we would 10 years ahead," said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.
Looking back, Flawn says he doesn’t think flagship status for UTSA ever was a serious consideration in the early days.
"I don’t think there was a fork in the road," Flawn said. "Central to UTSA’s mission originally was to open the university door to South Texas. I think it has been very successful at that. Now it is moving into the class of a graduate research university, and it is going to take a lot of work."
Even Sobre admits there was an air of unreality to early aspirations.
"I suspect that the rhetoric was all things to all people," Sobre said.
The example of UCSD shows that a quick rise to Tier One requires a solid head start, which it had in Scripps, and a laserlike focus on research, perhaps to the exclusion of other aspects of university life.
In recent years, a crop of younger, traditional UTSA students hasn’t been inclined to do that, demanding greater amenities and voting to increase their own fees in order to pay for them.
Also, UC is far more selective than UTSA, and has historically received more state money per student. Excellence in undergraduate education started early at San Diego, and San Antonio still is playing catch-up. The university is constantly struggling to add classroom space, lower its student-to-faculty ratio and adequately fund the humanities.
"We are not going to be UCSD, but that doesn’t preclude us from doing more and more research," said Cyndi Taylor Krier, former UT regent and Bexar County judge. "We don’t have a script. I think any institution creates its own road map and model."