UT's Precarious Holding Pattern

Gubernatorial recommendations and prior legislative pledges to the contrary notwithstanding, UT didn't get any additional funding from the state this year. Yet even that looks good compared to the looming prospect of being stripped of some of the funding it did get.

Unless the Legislature soon comes up with some new sources of revenue to cover the $300 million to $400 million deficit the state is facing in the current fiscal year, expenditures must be cut to comply with the state's balanced budget requirement. Since most of the state's outlays are driven by statutory formulas or federal and judicial mandates, sources of discretionary spending to be cut are few and far between.

The biggest of them, by far, is higher education. And the ugly word that's now on the lips of UT's overseers is impoundment. Everything from planned faculty salary raises and research initiatives to core curriculum is threatened by encroachments on this year's $155 million appropriation by the Legislature for UT-Knoxville.

"It's a scary prospect," says UT's head of public information, John Clark. To which Provost Loren Crabtree adds, "I'm still hoping we'll be able to proceed as planned, but that's all contingent on what happens in the state Legislature."

The two most important initiatives of J. Wade Gilley's short and not-so-sweet tenure as UT's president were (1) to make its faculty salaries more nearly competitive with its counterparts and (2) to boost UT into the ranks of the top 25 public research universities, primarily through the creation of nine Centers of Excellence for garnering more federal grants. A look at the status of each of these initiatives will serve to spotlight the university's precarious position.

* Faculty Salaries Starting last year, UT made a commitment to raise faculty salaries by an average of 6 percent in each of the next four years. This represented a belated effort to match up with similar commitments on the part of states like Georgia and Mississippi—states that have left faculty compensation in Tennessee lagging far behind.

With some initial help from the Legislature, UT was able to make good on the first installment of that commitment. But this year the Legislature's only dispensation was participation in the 2.5 percent pay raise approved for all state employees. In large part to make up the difference, UT's board of trustees approved a 15 percent tuition increase. But the $8 million derived from that increase to meet the second year's commitment is now being held in abeyance—a hostage to the threat of impoundment.

"It would be a tragedy to use student fee money to balance the state budget, but that's clearly what the $8 million that we've frozen represents," Crabtree says.

Also in jeopardy is $1.2 million that the Knoxville campus has reallocated from other sources to go toward raising graduate student stipends (another area where UT has become laggard). "The Legislature mandated that we make reallocations from lower priorities and put it on top priorities within the university. We never imagined that the money we've reallocated was going to be impounded," Crabtree frets.

* Centers of Excellence Earlier this year UT committed about $60 million over five years to nine competitively-selected centers that were to spearhead its quest to become one of the nation's top 25 public research universities. (In 2000, UT ranked 37th with research grants and contracts totaling $166 million—about $75 million short of the total needed to crack the top 25.)

By all reports, the centers are off to a good start. "They've generated $18 million in just their first six months of operation and have something like $90 million in grant proposals outstanding," reports Peter Alfonso, associate vice president and chief research officer. He voices confidence that a goal of achieving a four-to-one multiplier on the university's investment over five years can be attained.

However, it's anything but clear where the funds to sustain that investment will come from. An initial $27.5 million to cover the first two years came from the combination of a $7.5 million special state appropriation and $20 million from the proceeds of the 1999 sale (technically a spin off) of the UT Medical Center. The state funding was supposed to be the first of four annual installments totaling $30 million, but the Legislature reneged on the second $7.5 million installment this year. "We can get through the second year OK, but after that we're in trouble unless more money is forthcoming," Crabtree warns.

* The Oak Ridge Connection Crabtree is more sanguine when he looks at the potential for collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the nearby National Transportation Research Center, both under the management of a joint venture between UT and Battelle. "The Oak Ridge connection really is a wonderful opportunity for this institution," he enthuses with the fresh outlook of someone who just assumed his post in July (having previously been the provost at Colorado State University). In the transportation area alone, Crabtree says, "We have the opportunity to bring in new faculty and Oak Ridge really wants us to do that and to bring that Transportation Center to a very high level and then partner with the automotive industry for research and development."

Until his sudden death last Friday, Dean of Engineering Jerry Stoneking had been spearheading an effort to recruit an entire mechanical engineering team from another major university. But, as always, there's the matter of funding—although UT—Battelle is prepared to cover much of it in this case with federal money.

Going hat in hand, or waiting empty-handed, for more funding from Nashville is by no means the only way UT is approaching its research opportunities. The system-wide reallocation process that's been underway for several months is due to culminate in a set of recommendations to the Dec. 11 meeting of the Board of Trustees that's expected to free up some $24 million. The biggest single saving (of $7 million) could come from shutting down the UT Space Institute in Tullahoma, which is down to fewer than 100 students. "Tullahoma is extraordinarily expensive to operate, and the research dollars aren't there," says Crabtree.

Administrative savings of $1.2 million are being targeted from consolidations that would reduce the number of colleges on the Knoxville campus from 13 to 11. One would combine the free-standing School of Information Sciences with the College of Communications. The other would merge the College of Education and Human Ecology. "We have 13 collegial units in Knoxville whereas most comparable institutions have eight to 10," reports Crabtree, who is sticking his neck out further than predecessors were prepared to in advocating these consolidations.

The savings will be realized only in some longer run, and both short term and long term UT is only going to escape from its financial plight when augmented state support is consistently forthcoming.

"Clearly the state, the Legislature must come to its senses soon," Crabtree ventures.

But speaking for myself as someone who's been clinging to that belief for going on 10 years to little or no avail, it gets harder and harder to conclude that the state has any sense to come to.

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

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