insights (2005-49)

UT’s Renaissance Man

UT has seemingly become fixated on making big science its springboard to prominence as a research university. As previously discussed in this column, four joint institutes have been formed in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory that are expected to recruit some 15 renowned scientists who would bring teams of researchers with them and attract hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research grants. The fruits of all this research would resound to UT’s credit and its commercialization would serve to spur economic development in the area.

The joint institutes appear likely to represent UT’s sole source of any increase in state funding in the nearby. The $7.5 million being sought for top scientist positions and $10 million for lab equipment aren’t all that UT President John Petersen is requesting from Governor Phil Bredesen, but they’re all he’s likely to get, if that. (UT faculty and staff would participate in any pay raise covering all state employees.)

I’m not concerned that UT has yet to fill out any of these joint institute posts. The allure of ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source and unrivaled supercomputing capabilities will undoubtedly prove attractive in due course, and partnering with ORNL to take advantage of them is undeniably the University’s single most promising avenue of opportunity for advancement.

What does concern me, though, is that preoccupation with big science research could be distracting attention and resources from other worthy undertakings. UT has 11 colleges spanning the gamut of academic disciplines and professional schools on its flagship Knoxville campus, and all of them have needs.

Over a year ago, Chancellor Loren Crabtree enunciated as a goal elevating UT to the ranks of top universities that belong to the Association of American Universities (now 64 in number). “As the state’s premier public research university, UT has comprehensive responsibilities in all the great branches of knowledge. Membership in the elite AAU group depends upon excellence in a broad array of disciplines, as measured by faculty awards in the arts, humanities and social sciences,” he wrote at that time.

When asked recently whether UT is making any strides in that direction, Crabtree points to limited steps initiated even in the absence of any increase in state appropriations. With funding from this year’s 13 percent tuition increase, the university will be adding 12 new faculty positions next year. Most of the positions are in the College of Arts and Sciences, which already accounts for more than half of UT’s 1,005 faculty members and student instruction. Crabtree says the positions are aimed at “strengthening better programs and meeting enrollment growth at the upper division level as the large freshman classes of the past two years make their way through the university.” Departments in line for bolstering, primarily of their junior faculty ranks, include English, anthropology, classics, geography, history, political science, psychology and sociology.

Yet these steps don’t begin to fulfill Crabtree’s vision of raising $100 million to endow new senior faculty chairs in selective programs. “At an average salary of $175,000 plus benefits, UT could recruit 20-30 faculty with international reputations in targeted disciplines that have the promise of national and international prominence,” he postulates.

Petersen has endorsed this vision, including a request for $50 million from the state to match contributions from private donors toward fulfilling it. But the UT president didn’t even mention it at Bredesen’s higher education budget hearing on Monday, so UT’s chances of getting any of this state money anytime soon appear remote.

One impediment may be that the university has yet to identify the targeted disciplines to which the endowed chairs would be allocated. Crabtree says each of the UT’s deans has been charged with submitting plans by Feb. 15 in preparation for the launch of a capital fundraising campaign for which the multi-year goal is expected to total about $1 billion. “Once we have those plans, our job is to winnow them to decide upon our key priorities and then go see if we can find donors interested in them,” Crabtree says.

While the sciences can be expected to loom large in this equation, the chancellor stresses that, “As you look across this campus, it is by no means just in the sciences where you would try to place these positions.” Illustratively, he lists a number of programs where he claims UT is “just a hire or two away from achieving national prominence.”

Heading the list is an already flourishing medieval and renaissance studies program known as the Marco center. “If we could gain the interest of a donor, we could overnight create the preeminent center in this part of the country if not the nation as a whole. And the position we’d be creating could be in English, or history or religious studies or any number of other disciplines that comprise that program.”

Another candidate is a center for the study of the impact of violence on children that’s housed in the Department of Child and Family Studies. “We have a wonderfully developing program there that’s headed by a dynamic younger professor Brian Barber who has gained renown for his studies of the impact of violence, especially war on youth. But we need more funding for that center,” Crabtree says.

The list of the programs for which he foresees great potential also includes (among others) the College of Social Work, which is already nationally ranked, the School of Architecture and the Music Department which Crabtree says is “already much better than people give it credit for.”

When asked about the relevance of a medieval and renaissance studies program in this new millennium, Crabtree waxes eloquent when he responds, “the common assumption is that as science continues to grow, humanities will shrink because science reveals everything that there is to be known. That’s a wrong-headed way to look at it. Science is great at impacting the physical world around us. But it tells us next to nothing about ultimate purposes and reasons for existence. There’s a tremendous interest in things like Marco because it provides another way of impacting reality.”

UT is very fortunate to have a renaissance man like Crabtree as its chancellor.

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

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