Be Wary of Higher-Ed Restructuring

Will a single governing body at UT lead to more efficient management?

University of Tennessee academicians who have long sought more independence for the Knoxville campus from the university system's high command should be careful what they wish for.

The resignation of President John Petersen was widely welcomed on the campus in large part because it brought to the system helm for the first time someone who has come through the Knoxville faculty's ranks and is widely believed to share their values. As interim president, Jan Simek can be expected to favor shifting to the campus some of the functional responsibilities that stalwart former Chancellor Loren Crabtree fought and failed to get before resigning a little over a year ago.

But Petersen's resignation has also contributed to the impetus for a much further-reaching restructuring of higher education in the state that could lead to elimination of the UT system as such. Its convergence with the impending retirement of the head of the state's separate Board of Regents system and with the state's dire fiscal straits has prompted state officials to consider a consolidation of the two systems.

So far, Gov. Phil Bredesen has only gone so far as to say, "It's an interesting window of opportunity" and "a time to look at revisions." But several influential state legislators have been pressing for action in the belief that creation of a single governing body could lead to better, more efficient management of higher education in the state.

Such a consolidated system would almost certainly be based in Nashville and would probably encompass the entity that presently has a role in university oversight: namely the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which at least nominally coordinates the UT and Board of Regents systems. It follows the models of Georgia, North Carolina, and other states that have unified systems; a single governing board and a president would set the missions, policies, and budget of all university campuses. While each campus would have a chancellor who might have more administrative authority than the UT-Knoxville chancellor does today, the system president would be singularly responsible for government relations, including both state and federal funding.

A long-time champion of consolidation, James W. Guthrie, director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt, contends that it would lead not only to administrative efficiencies but also, and more importantly, to better allocation of resources and reduced competition and redundancy among the state's public universities. (In addition to UT's campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Martin, these include the six Board of Regents for four-year schools: Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State, and Tennessee Tech.) Yet when Guthrie made his case while serving as chief of staff for a blue-ribbon higher education task force appointed by former Gov. Don Sundquist in the late 1990s, he recalls that, "I was nearly run out of town."

Then-UT President Joe Johnson and influential members of its Board of Trustees like Jim Haslam weighed in against a restructuring that might strip the university of its stature and influence, especially in Nashville. The powers that be surrounding Middle Tennessee State also opposed the change out of fear it might impinge on MTSU's then burgeoning growth.

The political landscape has changed considerably since then, however. The man who now presides over the UT Board as vice chairman, Nashville lawyer Jim Murphy, served as Bredesen's law director when he was Metro Nashville's mayor. The vice chairman of the Board of Regents, Bobby Thomas, is also close to Bredesen and just happens to be a law partner of Murphy. (Bredesen serves as titular chairman of both boards, but seldom attends their meetings.) Reportedly, the governor and Thomas did prevail upon the chancellor of the Board of Regents system, Charles Manning, to postpone his retirement, whereupon the search for a successor was called off just before six finalists for the post were to be interviewed.

In announcing the selection of Simek to serve as UT's interim president for up to two years, Murphy also talked about allowing time to "look hard at how we're organized" before launching a search for a successor. But his stated focus was on examining the relationship between UT's campus administrations and its system hierarchy rather than a restructuring of the state's higher education system as a whole.

Many on the Knoxville campus would welcome almost any change that would free it from what they perceive to be the oppressive yoke of the UT system hierarchy. Control over everything from human resources and information technology to research initiatives are at issue here, and Petersen solidified his hegemony over each of these areas by naming system-level vice presidents to oversee them.

Yet while shipping UT governance off to a newly contributed board in Nashville might well give the Knoxville campus more administrative autonomy, it could deprive the university of the ability to seek funding and furtherance of its mission directly from the governor and the state Legislature. Whatever his shortcomings, Petersen deserves high marks for his effectiveness in Nashville. Backing for the four joint institutes that UT has formed in partnership with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a prime example, as is funding for the new Cherokee Campus that will house one of them as part of a much larger research complex that's envisioned.

Moreover, as the state's land-grant institution, UT's mission encompasses more than governing its university campuses and the Health Science Center in Memphis. There's also its Institute for Public Service and its Institute of Agriculture, where plans for a pioneering ethanol refinery may be the UT system's single most ambitious undertaking in the offing. Then, there are the 800 or more system-level administrative jobs that could be lost (at least to Knoxville) as a result of restructuring.

For all these reasons and many more, the well-being of the university and this community will be well served by the preservation of a Knoxville-based UT system with its own board of trustees.