Former Texas Legislator Dan Branch of Dallas has received a prestigious honor for his efforts to help elevate North Texas into a global research hub by more than doubling the number of Texas universities that are now designated as top-tier research institutions.
Branch, a senior attorney and shareholder with Winstead PC, was chairman of the House Higher Education Committee in 2009 when he pushed through a landmark bill to make Texas more competitive with other states by putting additional Texas universities on track to top tier status.
Only three held that designation at the outset of the 2009 Legislative session. Now, there are eight, including three in North Texas — the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Texas at Arlington, and the University of North Texas in Denton.
The Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas paid tribute to Branch’s contributions at an awards dinner earlier this month by bestowing him with its highest honor, the Legacy Award.
“Because of his legislative work, we have been able to attract top talent from around the world to grow our research team and continue to make meaningful scientific discoveries that improve lives today.”
Sandra Bond Chapman
“Because of his legislative work, we have been able to attract top talent from around the world to grow our research team and continue to make meaningful scientific discoveries that improve lives today,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, the center’s founder and chief director.
Branch’s efforts, she said, have “helped elevate the cause of brain health to the forefront of discussions not only in Texas but nationwide.”
The center was founded in 1999 with a commitment to enhancing, protecting, and restoring brain health. More than 100 scientists and research clinicians are engaged in more than 60 fully funded research projects in areas such as autism, Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, and aging.
Branch said the center’s work “is increasingly the focus of scientific discovery, which is uncovering more and more mysteries of the mind.” He said he was “surprised and honored” to be named the recipient of the Legacy Award, which recognizes those whose “vision and dedication” helped promote brain health.
HOUSE BILL 51 WAS A HIGHLIGHT OF BRANCH’S CAREER
For Branch, passage of the so-called Tier One measure — House Bill 51 — highlighted a legislative career that spanned six two-year terms, from 2003 to 2015. In signing the measure into law in a ceremony at UT Dallas, then-Gov. Rick Perry predicted that House Bill 51 will “go down in the history books” for its contributions to improving education.
“The Tier One legislation may well be the most important, transformative, and wildly successful legislation in Texas relative to public higher education in our lifetime,” said Dr. David Daniel, a former UT Dallas president who is now deputy chancellor of the University of Texas System.
Lawmakers opened the 2009 session confronting a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, but Branch recalls that the state’s alarming shortage of top-tier universities provoked a groundswell of support behind his call to put Texas in the upper reaches of higher education.
“It wasn’t a hard sell once we presented the facts, sort of appealing to legislators’ fierce native pride that Texas ought to have its fair share (of top universities),” Branch, now 58, said in a recent telephone interview.
“The more research universities that we have, the stronger our overall economy is, and the more we’re positioned to be competitive into the future.”
Branch and other supporters made the case that Texas, with only three top-tier universities, was “way behind” California and was “falling behind” New York, even though it had surpassed the Empire State in population and economic strength.
At the time, only the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University at College Station, and Rice University in Houston were designated as top tier universities. But House Bill 51 sought to expand the number by matching state money with private donations and thus boosting funding for universities seeking to become top-level research universities.
Since 2009, more than $290 million in state funds has matched more than $370 million in private gifts for research. The combined gifts and appropriations, along with $105 million in distributions from the National Research University Fund, represent a total of more than $700 million investment in Texas’ emerging research universities.
Four Texas schools — UT Dallas, UT Arlington, the University of North Texas, and Texas Tech University — achieved top tier status in February of this year when the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education placed them on a list of 115 universities with the “highest research activity,” according to press reports. The University of Houston received the listing in 2011.
Research universities create a coveted ripple effect for their communities by attracting top-flight companies with lucrative jobs and enhancing the region’s prestige.
BRANCH CONTINUES TO PRACTICE LAW, DO CHARITABLE WORK
“The more research universities that we have, the stronger our overall economy is, and the more we’re positioned to be competitive into the future,” Branch said.
Since leaving the Legislature, Branch said he stayed busy practicing law, participating in charitable work, and serving on nonprofit boards. Free from the endless legislative obligations in Austin, he also has more time to spend with his family, and take on domestic projects that went neglected during his days in the Legislature.
Branch and his wife, Stacey, have been married for 32 years and have five grown children. Their first grandchild, a girl, was born in September.
He said he enjoyed the challenges and rewards of public service but has no plans to re-enter politics.
“I’m really content and happy where I am,” he said. “I’m always open to opportunities, but I don’t have any particular plans.”
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