As the trustees at the University of Tennessee begin the search for the school's next president, they have a little time to decide what they would like the next president to do.
The current tension between the Knoxville employees of the UT system of statewide campuses and the Knoxville campus is not likely to go away—they are inherent to the structure of the university itself. There are many people on campus who feel the system has grown too large, is bloated with staff, and is devouring valuable resources that could be used to improve academics.
Reorganization of higher education is often discussed, but nothing ever seems to happen. We have UT trustees, a Board of Regents for other colleges, and a Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Perhaps the abrupt departure of the last three "outside" presidents of UT will finally prompt a public discussion about the structure of the university system. The budget threats to higher education might be a further stimulus to studying what sort of higher education system we ought to have.
Here are some ideas that have been discussed in higher-education circles that need to be addressed:
- How much administration is enough? If the focus of the universities is the classroom and research, are we devoting too much of the higher-education budget to administration? Should the trustees (or their agents) provide job descriptions and salary caps and limit the sheer number of people devoted to administering the system, as opposed to the campuses? How many vice presidents does the UT system need?
- Should the next UT president be an academic Marvin Runyon? When the former postmaster general became chair of TVA, it was a sprawling bureaucracy bleeding money from the accretion of employees over decades. He slashed jobs and, in the parlance of the time, "right sized" TVA for its mission.
- Should each campus of the UT system have its own small group of trustees focused on an independent, free-standing university? What is the relationship and shared mission of the UT-Knoxville campus with UT-Martin, as opposed to East Tennessee State or Middle Tennessee State? Should UT-Knoxville, MTSU, and Memphis comprise the UT system, with Chattanooga and Martin spun off as Board of Regent institutions? There is a great deal of sentiment in Chattanooga for breaking away. Indeed, there has even been a lawsuit filed seeking such a severance.
- The UT partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory is an important and meaningful development in recent years. But should that research relationship be with the academics on the UT-Knoxville campus, instead of with the system administrators?
- How is it possible for the UT-Knoxville campus to have no control or supervision of the school's athletic department? When the athletic department offers a seven-year contract to a fading football coach that includes a $6 million buyout, shouldn't the chancellor's office of the institution be in a position to ask, "What the hell are you doing?"
- Shouldn't the Knoxville campus have final say over where buildings are built, what they will be used for, and how precious, scarce land is utilized?
- If the primary job of the UT president is to raise money, manage the budget, and negotiate the politics of Nashville, wouldn't it be better to hire someone who has lived in Tennessee, knows the state, knows the players, and understands its people? Someone who can mobilize the public to support higher education and higher education budgets?
These are just some of the ideas that have been tossed around (and shared with me) in recent months. I'm sure there are others. Many of the ideas are controversial and all will have opposition. But Gov. Phil Bredesen and the UT trustees have an opportunity here to take a hard look at the UT system.
It's not just about who to hire as the new UT president, it's also about being clear what the new president's mission and responsibilities should be.
Write a job description first.