Faculty Accolades Balance Budget Woes at UT

After years of seeming futility, UT is finally having some success in recruiting top scientists to fill Governor's Chair positions

Amid a lot of turmoil, a lot of good things are happening at the University of Tennessee.

An awkward presidential turnover, a budget crisis, and other signs of instability to the contrary, the university is making progress or gaining recognition on a number of important fronts. Consider:

After years of seeming futility, UT is finally having some success in recruiting top scientists to fill Governor's Chair positions that were created with great fanfare to spur research at four institutes that UT and ORNL established jointly almost a decade ago. The two Governor's Chair appointees announced last month, polymer chemist Alexei Sokolov and nuclear chemist Howard Hall, will complement the one other who's been on board since 2006, computational biophysicist Jeremy Smith.

Sokolov is a Russian native who comes to UT-ORNL from the University of Akron amid acclaim not only from academia, but also from Gov. Phil Bredesen, who heralded a solar research initiative in his recent state-of-the-state address. "Dr. Sokolov is the perfect choice to help us tackle energy challenges such as solar cells and storage batteries," said ORNL Director Thom Mason in a UT press release.

Hall comes to UT-ORNL from the Laurence Livermore National Laboratory in California where he headed a radiological detection and response program. "I'm extraordinarily excited by this opportunity," Hall said in another UT release. "UT's academic reputation and resources and the access to unique experimental facilities at ORNL create an environment ripe for significant contributions to the global challenges facing us in nuclear security."

Some $17 million in set-aside state funding, to be matched by ORNL, for up to 20 envisioned Governor's Chair positions has largely been sitting idle up to now. And it's a testament to persistence and persuasiveness of recruitment efforts headed by UT's Executive Vice President David Millhorn that they have finally borne fruit at a time when funding for the university as a whole has been cast in doubt.

Speaking as someone who has sometimes thought that the university's high command has overemphasized big science to the belittlement of the humanities and other fields, it's also gratifying to see the recent recognition that's been bestowed on UT's History Department in particular.

Three recent books by history faculty members have gotten national acclaim. A biography of Eugene Debs by Ernest Freeberg is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography. A study of the pre-accession lives of England's 16th-century Tudor queens Mary and Elizabeth by Jeri McIntosh won a prestigious Gutenberg Prize from the American Historical Association. And Robert Norell's biography of Booker T. Washington was the subject of a five-page review in the New Yorker, as well as articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

Under the able leadership of chair Thomas Burman and predecessor Todd Diacon, who is now UT's vice provost for academic affairs, the History Department has also excelled in other ways. It's been the backbone of the Marco Institute, an interdisciplinary program in medieval and Renaissance studies that's widely recognized to be one of the top three nationally in this field. It's also got a national reputation in 19th-century U.S. history, particularly the Jacksonian and Civil War periods.

Yet, for all its strengths, the department also has deficiencies that have been exacerbated by budget cuts that have depleted faculty ranks almost willy-nilly across the university and are unlikely to be restored by the temporary federal stimulus money that's coming UT's way. The department's core faculty has shrunk from 27 to 23 due to a preclusion from filling vacancies. (By way of comparison, the University of North Carolina's history faculty is twice the size.)

Hilde De Weerdt's departure last year for Oxford University in England has left UT without a Chinese historian. Its modern Latin American historian, Todd Diacon, has ceased teaching since he became an administrator. Russian history isn't even being offered, and Islamic studies may soon become another vacuum upon the retirement of Rosalind Gwynne from the Department of Religious Studies.

In the global economy and society of the 21st century, it's downright shocking that our flagship state university doesn't have historians in any of these fields. And the prospects for rectifying any of these glaring deficiencies with new faculty additions in the foreseeable future appear bleak.

Federal stimulus money comes with a Congressional mandate that states maintain at least their 2008 level of higher-education funding through 2011. In UT-Knoxville's case, that means not only obviation of the $25 million cut that Bredesen had previously prescribed for the year ahead and like amount in the following year, but also restoration of an $11 million cut in this year's state funding. But under the terms of the three-year budget that Bredesen presented in late March, higher education funding would drop by 12 percent in the third year even if state revenues have recovered to their pre-recession level by then.

Even many faculty members share administrators' aversion to making the long-term commitments that adding new professors with tenure would entail. "It would be irresponsible to hire tenured faculty knowing the money is going away in two years," asserts the Faculty Senate's president, John Nolt, even though his own Philosophy Department has been hit by the loss of three of its 12 faculty positions.

So the emphasis will be on forestalling the hundreds of layoffs that had been in the offing and on one-time outlays for things like energy efficiency and building renovations. But further attrition seems almost bound to follow in UT's already depleted faculty ranks.

Nonetheless, it's heartening in these hard times to see that UT is gaining ground and recognition in some areas. And I'm encouraged to believe that engaging new Chancellor Jimmy Cheek will embrace former Chancellor Loren Crabtree's lofty goal of elevating UT to the top ranks of public universities in the long run.