The Future of Higher Ed

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The combination of a rapidly changing global economy, vacancies in system leadership, and Tennessee’s fiscal challenges present a unique opportunity to assess the function and form of our system of higher education. [“Be Wary of Higher-Ed Restructuring,” Insights by Joe Sullivan, March 12, 2009]

Our state’s future, and in some ways the future of every Tennessean, is tied to the effectiveness of our higher education system. The state’s economy, which is being forced to endure a slowdown that is pummeling our entire nation, has dictated many cuts to higher education.

To compete economically, Tennessee has to do a better job of producing an educated workforce. In a 2008 report, Tennessee ranked 43rd in the percentage of adults 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree. Our state is so far behind that Tennessee will need to produce 180,000 college graduates immediately just to meet the national average.

This opportunity merits an in-depth conversation and review. It does not require hasty, knee-jerk reactions that could create new and possibly larger problems.

The current structure was established in 1967, and we must ensure that it adapts to meet the goals of today’s changing world. There are calls in some quarters for rapid and forced consolidation of the current systems. The question of what structure to establish, however, is somewhat premature.

Pertinent questions that must precede any action include: How do we best align the policy and practice of higher education to the educational and economic needs of our state and region? How can we help Tennessee students succeed in a global workforce? How do we increase educational attainment and improve quality of delivery?

In short, what are our desired outcomes for higher education in the State of Tennessee? And, how do we expend our resources as efficiently as possible to accomplish those goals?

After these questions are answered, we can then embark on the task of deciding what structure will enable us to accomplish these outcomes. Otherwise, we will have created an organization that is in search of a mission, instead of a clearly defined mission with an organizational structure that can support it effectively.

Productive reform is possible and greatly needed. It can be accomplished after a thorough, attentive discussion that brings all of the stakeholders in higher education to the table. This task will not be easy given the complexity of the issues and the number of stakeholders involved.

Fortunately, Tennessee is blessed with passionate public servants committed to higher education and economic competitiveness. We should employ the experience and knowledge of administrators, professors, students, policymakers, citizens, business leaders, and community leaders. The discussion should also include experts on policy, funding, and governance. To do less is to do too little.

We must create ambitious goals with coherent and clear missions for our institutions. The structure of management of higher education is vital. However, setting our goals and expectations for Tennessee’s system of higher education is the opening move.

We can best figure out the route when we first know the destination.

Sen. Jamie Woodson, District 6, Knoxville

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