Upside-Down Priorities

Interest is focused on a big UT job—just the wrong one

When an important post at the University of Tennessee comes open, it's heartening to see the interest in the community at large. The media, the blogs, the discussion boards, and talk radio are totally engaged in the selection process and the candidates have their records closely scrutinized.

Each candidate has partisans and there is much discussion about the philosophy of the next hire and how it will impact the institution. It's understood that the selection will say a lot about the future: keeping the status quo or heading in a new direction.

Unfortunately for education, we're talking about an offensive coordinator for the football team, not the open job of chancellor of the Knoxville campus. If David Cutcliffe had been fired, rather than taking a head coaching job, his partisans would have lit up the athletic department switchboard and there would have been a media frenzy. The removal of Chancellor Loren Crabtree has caused barely a ripple outside the academic community.

It's a perfect example of the upside-down priorities of the state's higher education institutions. It demonstrates why the UT-system president might theoretically leave academics on the Knoxville campus to the chancellor—but the system president runs the athletic department. You don't last long as head of the UT system if you don't understand the priorities of the Board of Trustees and the state legislature: skyboxes, tickets, parking, winning championships, and building athletic facilities.

But now that the important job of offensive coordinator has been filled, maybe we can spend a few minutes talking about the issues surrounding Crabtree's departure.

In a battle between No. 1 and No. 2 in an organization, the outcome can usually be predicted and the root cause is often a personality conflict. But UT system President John Petersen is regarded by all and sundry to be a good administrator, a strong academic, and seems almost universally liked. How is it he found himself on the wrong side of the faculty, the deans, distinguished professors, and the chancellor of his flagship campus? Crabtree paid the price, but he was voicing the concerns of a large group of the academic community.

There has been tremendous progress at UT-Knoxville: a growing list of distinguished faculty, the management contract at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the increasing grade-point average of its students and the construction (finally) of badly needed facilities. Ironically, it may be the academic success and leadership of Petersen that led academia to aspire to take UT-Knoxville to the front ranks of American universities.

The campus, headed by its chancellor, has begun to chafe under strictures that prevent it from making decisions about the use of the Cherokee farm property south of the river, the use of existing facilities on the main campus, and the operation of the ORNL contract. These and other controversies have again raised the issue of the governance structure of the Knoxville campus.

We need to move on. We have a good UT president, the university has a good story to tell and a good story to sell. But can't we spend a little time looking at the governance issue? Can't we consider that Petersen and UT-Knoxville are on the brink of major success and ought to be free to have an integrated and totally focused administration?

Does UT-Knoxville any longer need to be saddled with campuses in Tullahoma? Martin? Chattanooga? Memphis? This system is no system at all. It's a leftover from the 1960s. While we're at it, isn't it about time to shut down the UT lobbying infrastructure otherwise known as county extension agents? Having a UT lobbyist in every legislative district is a relic of the 1960s as well. They don't spend much time lobbying any more; some of them spend their time looking for a farmer.

We don't need a Tennessee system, a Board of Regents, and a Tennessee Higher Education Commission each with a board and an administrator. We have world-class academics and a wealth of talent on our college campuses. Don't they deserve a world-class organizational structure?