Bucking the System

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The clash between top researchers on the Knoxville campus and UT's bureaucracy is escalating to the point that it could jeopardize the university's quest for research eminence.

The clash is mainly over the management of relationships between UT and ORNLâ"in particular, the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, or JIAM. Many researchers involved, backed by deans of the Colleges of Engineering and Arts & Sciences, insist that primary responsibility for joint endeavors with ORNL should reside solely with Knoxville campus administrators, headed by Chancellor Loren Crabtree. But in a recent pronouncement, UT president John Petersen proclaimed that ORNL relations would be the provenance of the University of Tennessee System's high command, which presides over all campuses and institutes.

Researchers want local control, in other words; Petersen wants global oversight. The clash could be characterized as a power struggleâ"or â“turf warâ”â"on the part of academicians who have long been resentful of â“the system.â” But too much is at stake to lightly dismiss this brewing brouhaha in these terms.

The leader of a multi-disciplinary team that's been formulating plans for JIAM, the distinguished physics professor Ward Plummer asserts that team members won't want any part of it if the new Cherokee Campus on which it's to be located is under system control, as Petersen has stipulated.

â“We aren't moving over there under these circumstances, and the consequences will be severe,â” Plummer warns. â“If we don't go, then we could lose a lot of our best people, including me. We've got to run this thing because the major part is about hiring new people and recruiting graduating students, and if you don't include department heads, you don't have the right people making decisions.â”

Plummer is one of UT's four members of the National Academies of Science and Engineering. Chancellor Crabtree has long sought to boost this number into the double digits as a major stepping stone toward gaining the stature needed for membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, a select group of 62 leading research universities in the US and Canada.

A big part of this effort has been the creation of what are known as the Governor's Chairs, for which the state has appropriated $6.5 million annuallyâ"funds ORNL has committed to match, in what would then be joint appointments. But after four years of searching, only one chair has been filledâ"by computational biophysicist Jeremy Smith, who moved here a year ago from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. This failure to attract more leading research scientists despite plenty of funding is becoming a major embarrassment, and the growing schism within the university can only worsen the prospects.

Another National Academy member who is believed to be disaffected is UT's Dean of Engineering Way Kuo. He couldn't be reached for comment, but he's known to have initiated a letter signed by many other deans urging more autonomy on the part of the flagship UTK campus in managing its own affairs and in interacting with Oak Ridge.

In an attempt to go over Petersen's head, the letter is addressed directly to UT's Board of Trustees. So is a separate letter signed by all four National Academy Members and several other distinguished scientists who have joint UT-ORNL appointments. The latter letter states:

â“A successful and mutually beneficial interaction between UTK and ORNL rests on understanding the two different cultures and marrying the best of both. The national laboratories are good at building and operating major user facilities, which requires a more corporate approach (top-down). In contrast, a research university succeeds by creating the environment that attracts and retains the individualistic, passionate, competitive faculty that makes science work (bottom-up).... The flaw with the Petersen plan is that it would turn the university into a government laboratory, i.e. top-down management.â”

Ironically, the schism comes at a time when UT has just succeeded in garnering the largest research grant it has ever received: $65 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a petascale computer (that's a quadrillion calculations per second, folks). A prime mover in winning this grant was ORNL's deputy director for computational sciences, Thomas Zacharia. Chances are, Zacharia was only too happy to don his Vol hat and appeal to the NSF on UTK's behalf, as national laboratories are not eligible for NSF awards. But now that funding is in place, Zacharia, who could not be reached for comment, is reportedly pressing Petersen to give him control over the computer's operationâ"control that had been originally vested in the Knoxville campus.

Petersen may have intended for his recent pronouncement asserting greater authority in oversight of UT-ORNL relations to help pull the system together, but it's currently threatening to tear the University apart. â" Joe Sullivan

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All content © 2007 Metropulse .

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