insights (2006-51)

UT’s Bold Expansion Plan

For years, Gov. Phil Bredesen has been calling for transformative change in higher education. Now, UT has come forward with a plan so bold it’s almost visionary at a cost so high it goes way over the top of the scale of what the state has been prepared to pay for higher ed enhancement up to now. And it remains to be seen how much of it Bredesen will buy.

As presented to the governor by UT President John Petersen and Chancellor Loren Crabtree at a meeting last week, the prime elements of the plan are:

• Construction of $300 million in research-centric academic facilities on what’s been a 230-acre dairy farm across the Alcoa Highway bridge from UT’s main campus. Virtually the entire College of Engineering, the physics and part of the chemistry departments would be relocated to a million square feet of new buildings on the research campus, which would also have a like amount of space for corporate and governmental research oriented enterprises.

• Renovation at a cost of $110 million of several aging buildings that would be vacated by the move. The renovations would provide additional classroom, lab and office space for an array of other academic disciplines that have had no room to grow.

• Utilization of the additional space to increase UT’s student body to 35,000 from the 27,000 level where it’s stayed flat for the past generation. To support this student growth, Crabtree reckons that 400 additional faculty positions (for a total of 1,700) will be needed. He places the annual cost of added faculty and support staff, building maintenance and other operating expenses at $110 million a year, which represents more than a 25 percent increase in the Knoxville campus’ operating budget.

Getting the money for such a transcendent undertaking also transcends any budgetary parameters under which the state has funded higher education up to now. Where capital outlays are concerned, the $200 million budgeted statewide for the current year represents the largest sum ever provided. By tradition, this pot gets about equally divided between UT and the other institutions over which the state’s Board of Regents presides. And of UT’s share, little more than half typically comes to Knoxville with the balance going for projects on the Chattanooga, Martin, and Memphis campuses.

At the rate of $50 million a year, it would take eight years to build out the new research campus and renovate the vacated buildings to ready them for enrollment growth. And even then the $400 million for these projects would be competing with numerous renovation projects for other antiquated buildings that are already on the drawing boards.

Yet as tough as it may be to get a funding commitment for the capital costs, getting the additional operating funding promises to be even tougher. This year was the first in many that UT got any increase in operating money from the state. Of the $7 million that came Knoxville’s way, most went for cost-of-living pay increases. And even though good economic times continue to roll, all that’s expected for the year ahead is $7.5 million from the state which coupled with $5 million from tuition increases would permit a five percent faculty pay raise, which Petersen has made a top priority.

“Doing everything it will take to grow to 35,000 students is obviously not feasible in the short run. Maybe over 10 years we might do it, but even then it takes an enormous amount of money,” says Crabtree in a tone of voice that’s tinged with doubt. “You could characterize this entire plan as a field of dreams not just for UT but for the entire state,” he goes on to say. “The question for Tennessee is do we really want to participate fully in the creative economy and are we prepared to make a huge investment to do so.”

Another point of concern is whether if UT builds it, enough students of the desired caliber will come to fill its ranks. With a big boost from the state’s lottery scholarships, the university has strengthened itself academically by increasing the average ACT of its entering freshmen from 23.5 in 2001 to 25.8 this year. That increase in ability has served to increase student retention rates and prospective graduation rates to a Crabtree goal of 65 percent from 59 percent on the part of students who entered six years ago. These are important stepping stones toward achieving Crabtree’s numero uno goal of elevating UT’s stature sufficiently to qualify for membership in the Association of American Universities, which is presently comprised of 64 top schools. But UT’s pool of applicants isn’t presently robust enough to permit an increase in entering freshmen to close to 6,000 from 4,200 without lowering its standards.

The chancellor bridles at the notion that increasing the quantity of students might jeopardize their quality. “That’s not going to happen,” he asserts. And he goes on to voice optimism that, “More high-quality students in this state will recognize that staying at their flagship university is a lot better option than paying a lot more to go out of state.”

So why does UT now want to add 8,000 students, 6,000 undergraduates and 2,000 grad students, when it’s scraped and strained budgetarily over the past decade just to support the 27,000 students it’s now got? Crabtree believes that UT is undersized relative to its counterparts in similar-sized states. He first cites states, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, where a single university serves like UT as both a comprehensive flagship campus and as the state’s land grant institution, with its emphasis on agriculture and engineering. He goes on to point out that UT’s student body is much smaller than the combined enrollment of separate flagship and land grant universities in other southeastern states including Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. “What this state needs is more highly-trained, highly-capable people entering the work force, and it’s our mission to provide them,” he states.

Along with its educational benefits, UT’s expansion plan would bring huge economic benefits to Knoxville. These start with a construction boom followed by a lot more students spending money here before ever getting to the many high-tech enterprises that may be induced to locate on the research campus.

So from every standpoint there would clearly be a big bang for the buck.