Plumb Lines to Punch Lines: UT Dallas President Speaks Out on Education

            You’d expect Dr. David Daniels, with academic degrees in engineering, to know all about plumb lines and other engineering concepts. What’s refreshing is that the President of the University of Texas at Dallas  also knows how to deliver a punchline.  He “gets” the importance not only of subject-matter expertise, but also of having the ability to reach out to an audience and hold its attention.

For example, hearing someone lament his dislike of  math in college, Dr. Daniels was reminded of the math teacher who groused in the opposite direction over the lack of mathematics in education.

“There ought to be a tax on people who don’t understand math,” the teacher said.

“There is,” Dr. Daniels said, heading toward that punch line…..

“It’s called the lottery.”

It was the perfect zinger and broke the crowd up into laughter during a meeting of professional alumni from The Greenhill School, a college prep school in Dallas. The group gathered to hear Dr. Daniels and Greenhill’s headmaster Scott Grieggs chat over lunch at the Dallas Museum of Art. On the subject of education, Dr. Daniels can spark off provocative statistics faster than a blow torch can flame. He also shares philosophical insights that deepen understanding of the data.

According to Dr. Daniels, enrollment and applications are high at UT Dallas, thanks in large part to the strength of the economy. Dallas is experiencing an influx of even more new businesses and families coming here. Rather than declining enrollment, his greater concern is other challenges Texas education faces.

“About 40 per cent of Texans do not graduate from high school,” he said. This number is three or four percentage points worse than the national average.  Like many in the group, he has a concern about the growing delta between the have’s and the have not’s. High-school tuition at an extremely high performing, well-respected school like Greenhill in Dallas is in the $20,000 a year range. Even with significant scholarship money, the difference between what’s available to those with money and those without it, is a opportunity to resolve.

On a more positive note, he discussed innovations he sees coming in textbooks over the next few years. “They’ll be replaced by highly interactive processes, a completely different experience from today-and it will be more expensive, not less.”

He paraphrased a comment he heard from former Fed Chief Alan Greenspan to summarize his feelings about education: ” If you get education right, you don’t have to do anything else. if you get it wrong, pretty much nothing else will work.”

Dr. Daniels communication and leadership skills resulted in his being nominated as a finalist for “Texan of the Year” by the Dallas Morning News in December, 2009, based on his legislative efforts to create more top-tier research universities in Texas.