In his 1999 inaugural address, then-newly-appointed University of Tennessee President J. Wade Gilley proposed the almost dauntingly ambitious Tennessee Plan for Academic Excellence. The proposal included an outline for the so-called "centers of excellence," a plan conceived for the purpose of selecting and financially empowering the university system's top researchers, a strategy modeled after similar programs in the country's top research institutions.
UT administrators launched in the summer of 2000 a somewhat complicated and strangely amorphous selection process that called for interested researchers to submit line-item details of both the nature of their proposed endeavors and the specifics of how their budget dollars would be allocated.
According to Gilley, the program would divvy more than $100 million among a small handful of larger endeavors as well as an additional dozen or so smaller ones. The money, said Gilley, would come from a number of sources, including administrative streamlining, the recent sale of UT hospital and a hefty grant promised by the state Legislature...
But the specifics of how and when those funds would materialize remained nebulous, lost in the disorienting limbo of a sort of bureaucratic ether. And when questioned separately, UT administrators not infrequently offered differing accounts of how the centers' odyssey would unfold.
When the first round of centers was announced in December, the seeming shell-game of budget questions and befuddling procedural elasticity unveiled nine large-to-moderate designated centers (rather than the planned four or five), most of which received less than one-half of the promised funding upon their selection.
Gilley dismissed the shortfalls and retailoring as standard operating procedure in the world of research and government grants. "A typical faculty member here before would be lucky to get $100,000 in research funds," he said earlier this year. "So $5 million, $7 million, $10 million doesn't look too bad."
Among the chosen researchers, however, there were inklings of carefully veiled dismay. Though seemingly unflappable, almost philosophical in his perspective on change, Dr. Jack Dongarra of the newly-christened Information Technology Research Center admitted that the alterations were "disappointing. We worked very hard to produce a proposal at a certain level of funding."
And the chosen researchers have found that the linchpin of building a more formidable research program—the recruitment of top-notch research professors—was the hardest hit of the objectives they were forced to retailor in the wake of the centers' announcement. "They (new profs) were to have been the cornerstone of the center," Dongarra said of his own scuttled plans to recruit a host of research "superstars" to the information technology center.
And some questions remain as to the validity of the centers' plan; though most administrators and faculty have pronounced the program eminently worthwhile, some remain skeptical as to the ultimate success of this massive new bureaucratic venture. And at least one faculty member told a reporter in January that she believed the centers' selections were largely political, often based on the individual researcher's ability to bring in hefty outside grants rather than the substance or importance of the work. Academic, administrative and financial issues will likely play equal roles in determining the centers' long-term viability.
But having spoken to a reporter again in recent weeks, Dongarra relates that the initial stirrings of the program are encouraging. Despite Gilley's departure, and despite the recent state budget crisis—which casts a shadow of doubt over the Legislature's promise to allocate centers' funding—centers' profs have reportedly been assured that their course will remain unchanged, at least for the foreseeable future.
"It's definitely an uncertain situation," Dongarra says. "But everyone is talking positively. They're telling us there's money for at least five years. After that, we're not sure. But right now, we have a green light. We have a budget, and we have spending money."
When the Centers of Excellence program launched last summer with the administration's solicitation of funding proposals, Claudia Mora and a host of colleagues from the school's geography, geology, ecology and anthropology departments collaborated on a pair of "centers'" plans: the Initiative in Global Environmental Change, and the Initiative for Archaeometry and Geochronology. Theirs and the other 13 new small-centers' plans were chosen from a list of 67 applicant researchers.
Mora was one of only two or three chief authors of both the proposals in which she is involved, although she maintains that these centers are "egalitarian in structure. My role is as a participant; they're 'musketeer' types of operations."
As was the case with the original nine centers' designees, the funds available for the latest round of chosen researchers are substantially reduced from the lofty predictions Gilley floated when he announced the program. The initial promise of $20 million, which was to have been divvied among all the smaller centers, was first reduced to $5 million, then to $3.6 million, a shortfall that saw most of the chosen research initiatives funded at somewhere between 10 and 50 percent of their ideals. (Most of the larger centers received between one-quarter and one-third of the funding they were first told to expect.)