The Legislative Dissing of UT

State legislators are making a mockery of UT's alma mater and, even worse, of their own oath of office to "do nothing...injurious to the people."

By failing to provide any additional funding for higher education, the lawmakers have put the lie to all of their own lip service paid to the need for redress in this area of egregious state neglect. Their near-zero on a scale of anything budget undermines all of the initiatives set in motion a year ago toward elevating UT from the bottom of the heap among state universities.

These include a centers of excellence plan for making UT one of the nation's top 25 public research universities, along with a goal to raise faculty salaries by 6 percent a year in an attempt to close the gap with surrounding states that have left us far behind. Failure to fund the second $7.5 million installment of a four-year $30 million commitment for the research initiative amounts to reneging on the Legislature's part. Almost better not to have made the commitment in the first place than to dash the expectations and thwart the planning it begat.

Legislative paralysis leaves it up to UT's administration and trustees to somehow keep the institution ambulatory. Just as in lean years past, their first recourse is to raise tuition. The 15 percent increase that's now contemplated would raise $18.5 million. That's just about equal to UT Knoxville's share of Gov. Don Sundquist's unheeded recommendation for $82 million in additional higher ed funding on a statewide basis, inclusive of faculty salary increases but exclusive of the research renege.

Unlike prior tuition hikes that have cumulatively doubled student costs over the past decade, though, this year's increase is atop a base that's already higher than most surrounding states. Of the eight states that border Tennessee, only two—Virginia and Arkansas—have state university tuitions higher than UT's. But both of them provide far more by way of financial assistance to make college affordable to needy students, or at least are making strides to do so.

According to the Fact Book on Higher Education published by the Southern Regional Education Board, the $110 million in scholarship funds provided by Virginia in 1998-99 was more than five times the amount available in Tennessee. (That's the most recent year for which the SREB has data.) While Arkansas' scholarship funds just about equaled Tennessee's $21 million, at least they had more than doubled over a five-year period, whereas state aid in Tennessee had declined by 29 percent over that same span.

The SREB fact book is loaded with other stark testaments to Tennessee's higher ed dereliction. For example, faculty salaries at four-year universities in the 14 states covered by the SREB averaged $55,000 in 2000 compared to $51,800 in Tennessee. Starker yet, average salaries in the 14 states rose by 6.1 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 1995 and 2000, whereas alone among the states, Tennessee's actually declined (by 3.3 percent). Georgia led the pack with a 10.5 percent increase to $58,300.

True, the budget bill that seemed destined for approval as Metro Pulse went to press does include a 2.5 percent pay raise for all state employees including academicians. But that bill, which was conjured up after an abject failure to agree on any new source of state revenue, is so bastardized that legislators might disown it. The conjuring consisted of raiding $460 million in tobacco settlement money that's been accumulated over the past two years to cover expenses in the current year. Since only $160 million in recurring tobacco settlement payments are projected, that leaves a $300 million hole to be filled in the years ahead—before even getting to any additional funding for higher ed and other worthy Sundquist initiatives that got deep-sixed.

Assuming the 2.5 percent state pay raise goes through, UT's acting president, Eli Fly, voices optimism that the university's 6 percent faculty salary increase goal can still be met by hitting up students for the balance of the money. "Sometimes it's better to take a half or a quarter of a loaf than end up with nothing," is his legislative post mortem. But that kind of settle-for-crumbs sentiment has contributed to UT's deterioration over the past decade.

In his brief, abruptly-ended tenure as president, J. Wade Gilley brought a fresh resolve to strive for more. Last year, he sold the Legislature on a four-year commitment totaling $30 million toward launching several centers of excellence aimed at boosting UT into the top 25 public universities in terms of capturing (mostly federal) research grants. From among 111 arduously-prepared faculty proposals, nine were selected—all predicated on multi-year funding of their business plans.

Fly now acknowledges that there's not any other funding from any other source in sight to sustain the centers in the absence of aborted state funding. "We're going to have to take a very hard look at that," he says almost forlornly.

Given oft-repeated expressions of resolve on the part of all stripes to strengthen the state's commitment to higher education, it's hard to fathom how UT could have been left so shabbily in the lurch. After six months of hapless wrangling, though, majorities in the House and Senate could never be mustered for any of the multitude of potential new sources of revenue that were considered. The House, to Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's great credit, stood ready to approve a state income tax. But a leadership vacuum in the Senate left it unable to come up with anything other than a sales tax increase that was abhorrent to the House majority. (A last gasp attempt to put a patchwork package of other revenue-raising measures through the Senate seemed doomed to failure at press time.)

The only way to take solace in this debacle is that the pain inflicted now may improve the chances for gain in the not too distant future.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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