insights (2007-15)

UT's State Funding Battle

A recent cover story in Metro Pulse on UT president John Petersen would have you believe that Petersen and Gov. Phil Bredesen get along famously, but that hasn't exactly been the case of late.

At the March meeting of UT's Board of Trustees, Petersen took several shots at Bredesen's budget recommendations for the university, according to reports in other media. He termed the governor's recommended one-percent pay raise a "bum deal" for higher education personnel and vowed to keep striving for the five-percent raises that he's made a top priority. At the same time, Petersen vented that the governor's recommended capital outlays included only one of several UT priority projects: $32 million for infrastructure work on the site of the university's proposed new research campus on what has been its dairy farm. "It's frustrating when $32 million is all you get," Petersen was quoted as saying. And, indeed, that sum is far below the $110 million appropriated for five new and renovated UT buildings in the current fiscal year.

When asked about these criticisms in an appearance on WBIR-TV's Inside Tennessee program, Bredesen responded that they "didn't sit real well with me." And he went on to say that, "I think UT has done quite nicely under the plans that we've had, and I'd kind of throw it back to them a little bit and say, OK, but rather than us just always running around and scrambling and finding new dollars, how about you spending a little time combing through some of your programs and see if there are some things that are sort of fossilized and could be cut out or cut back."

In an effort to smooth over the apparent rift, UT's vice president for public and government affairs Hank Dye insists that Petersen's "bum deal" comment was taken out of context. As for fossilized programs, Dye says, "I can't say whether there are any fossils or not, but we are certainly looking all the time at reallocations to make sure we're spending the money the best way we can." (I couldn't get an interview with Petersen until after the deadline for this column but expect to be addressing his plans and views in this space next week.)

Meanwhile, the UT president is already making headway with his vow to trustees that: "We're going to have to battle a little more than we've done in the past. People think there's more money available." The Senate Education Committee, with Petersen front and center, unanimously recommended funding two additional capital projects: $30 million for a new School of Music facility in Knoxville and $48 million for a new library in Chattanooga. Last week he reportedly got a good reception at a House budget hearing with his appeal for more salary money from the state.

Getting faculty and staff salaries up to at least the average of the 10 other southern state universities that are deemed UT's peers has been at the top of Petersen's priority list for the past year or more. Presently, faculty compensation is about 93 percent of the average. So even a five-percent raise would only represent a step toward parity with what's a moving target.

It's true that in addition to a one-percent salary increase Bredesen recommended a two-percent bonus for state employees including higher ed. But UT officials don't consider a one-time bonus meaningful in narrowing the compensation gap. Nor are they desirous of tapping a $17 million increase in recommended operational funding for the university--an increase that falls short of restoring the nine-percent cut in UT's operating budget that Bredesen imposed in 2003.

By Bredesen's way of reckoning, the $40 million that he recommended for a pilot plant to produce ethanol from switchgrass counts as a UT outlay. "UT told me how important this switchgrass project was for developing their graduate school and Oak Ridge, and we put $40 million in capital and another $30 million in operating funds over the next three years into that," he said.

But as UT officials see it, this pioneering biofuels endeavor primarily represents an economic development initiative rather than an academic one. "This is a marvelous opportunity for Tennessee," says UT's recently named executive vice president, David Millhorn.

Assuming the pilot plant proves the commercial feasibility of processing switchgrass into ethanol, he envisions that within several years plants in rural areas around the state could be producing a billion gallons a year. "The really exciting thing is the job's created, and if the farmers own part of this, they could pay not only by growing the crop but also by processing the crop into ethanol. This will put a lot of money into our rural counties, and that's what we want to do."

For all its boldness on this front, UT is pulling in its horns when it comes to plans for the Cherokee Campus on the dairy farm site. An ambitious proposal to Bredesen last fall called for relocating nearly the entire College of Engineering, the physics department and other science buildings to the new 200-acre campus at a cost of $300 million. Another $110 million would have gone into renovation of vacated buildings on the main campus to accommodate an 8,000 student enrollment growth to 35,000.

However, Millhorn now says, "The cost of that would have been prohibitive." A new electrical and computer engineering building that would have been the first to go up on the Cherokee Campus is now due to be located on the main campus instead. And the only building firmly slated to go on the new campus is an Institute for Advanced Materials that represents a joint venture between UT and ORNL. But Millhorn foresees other research-intensive facilities getting built there over time, including high-tech private ventures.

As for creating more space to allow for student body growth, Millhorn says, "We have to look very carefully at how efficiently we are utilizing our existing space, our classrooms, before we start an aggressive program to build new ones."

So it's not as if the university isn't paying heed to Bredesen's admonitions to hold down costs or, as Petersen has often said, to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.