insights (2005-48)

Justifying UT Funding Increases

When UT President John Petersen presents his request for additional funding to Gov. Phil Bredesen at a state budget hearing next Monday, he will have his work cut out for him.

Heading the list of UT’s requests for the fiscal year ahead is $7.5 million for recruitment of distinguished scientists to conduct research at joint institutes UT has established in partnership with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (ORNL has committed to match state contributions up to $10 million toward funding these joint positions.)

The $7.5 million sought represents an increase from $2.5 million obtained in the current fiscal year’s state budget. But after getting turned down by at least two vaunted candidates, UT has yet to attract anyone to any of the joint institute posts. So the obvious question becomes: why should Bredesen recommend additional state funding until the university has demonstrated an ability to make good use of the money already allocated? (More on that in a bit.)

Petersen also faces a tough sell on another of the university’s high-priority requests, as listed by Executive Vice President Jack Britt. UT is seeking a one-time, $50 million state matching grant for establishing new, endowed faculty positions that could span the gamut of academic disciplines.

Such one-time, or non-recurring, dollars are sometimes easier to obtain than appropriations that presume recurring funding in subsequent years, as is the case with the joint institute positions. UT met with great success in the 1980’s, when Lamar Alexander was governor, in establishing some 50 Chairs of Excellence for which state-matching dollars served as a major inducement to attracting private donors. These endowed faculty positions were mostly in select Centers of Excellence or other fields which the university, in collaboration with the governor, had targeted for strengthening. But Britt says the university hasn’t yet identified how the matching funds for endowed chairs now being requested would be allocated and adds that, “A lot will depend on the preferences of donors.” Petersen needs to convey how the request comports with his emphasis on having a strategic plan for elevating UT’s academic stature.

A third priority on Britt’s short list is $10 million to equip a Joint Institute for Advanced Materials that’s due to be built on the Knoxville campus. UT was successful in getting a $20 million federal appropriation for the building, but a state commitment to matching funding for equipment is understood to have been part of the bargain. So hopefully this one-time money will be easier to obtain.

The new joint institute, known as JIAMS, is the fourth on which UT and ORNL have collaborated. The other three, all domiciled in Oak Ridge, are a Joint Institute for Biological Sciences (JIBS), a Joint Institute for Computational Sciences (JICS) and a Joint Institute for Neutron Sciences (JINS). The latter two, especially, are expected to attract world-class researchers who will avail themselves of ORNL’s two most distinctive attributes: the Spallation Neutron Source and the civilian world’s most powerful computer.

UT and ORNL are by no means devoid of top scientists. But for all of their supposed allure, the joint institutes have failed to attract any of the trophy hires for which the initial state-ORNL match money had been dedicated.

The person recently placed in charge of the recruitment effort is UT’s vice president for research, David Millhorn, who came on board three months ago from the University of Cincinnati after an extensive search. Millhorn is taking a different approach of “casting a broad net for candidates” as opposed to what had been a tendency to single out a prime prospect and then woo him, sometimes for months, to no avail.

“In any job of this importance you don’t want to have a candidate, you want to have candidates plural,” he says. So UT will be advertising the positions extensively to “get as many high-quality candidates as we can and then narrow them down to get the best fit.”

And how long may this process take? “I’d like the first ones coming to fruition in spring or early summer,” Millhorn says. And what would he tell the governor to justify additional state funding in the meantime? “We haven’t found the right quality yet, and we’re not going to waste your money. We’re going to spend it wisely. But once we get started, it’s going to be fast and furious, not just one recruit this year and another one next year.”

Working in UT’s favor is the fact that the climate for additional state education funding has improved. Curtailments of TennCare enrollment and benefits, however draconian they may have been, have put a clamp on its outlays that had been spiraling out of control. When informed at a TennCare budget hearing that projected outlays for this year and next are on his prescribed track, an almost jubilant Bredesen exclaimed that, “I can’t remember when I’ve had a pleasant conversation about TennCare [like this one].” And he went on to say, “This means we will be able to make some targeted investments, particularly in education.”

Still, pre-K and K-12 enhancements will be competing with higher education for additional funding. And the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, in submitting its funding-increase recommendations to the governor last week, didn’t include any UT requests on its top-priority list.

So Petersen does indeed have his work cut out for him.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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