Opportunity for Wholesale Higher Education Reform Squandered?

Gov. Phil Bredesen and the trustees of the University of Tennessee set up conditions for a major overhaul of higher education and gave themselves a year to do it—then they punted.

The decision last week to start a search and hire a new president of the University of Tennessee system by October sends a strong signal that nothing about the UT structure will change. This is Bredesen’s last session of the Legislature and no major reorganization legislation is scheduled. Instead of hiring a new president to take the Knoxville campus to the first rank of national institutions, they will instead be installing someone to also manage UT-Martin, UT-Chattanooga, UT facilities in Tullahoma, and the medical school in Memphis.

Trustee Doug Horne’s efficiency committee will be making some improvements, cutting costs and more clearly defining the role of the next president. They will do what they can, given the structure that is there. One recommendation is to move the UT “system” president out of Andy Holt Tower and away from the administrators of UT-Knoxville.

But it is no secret that the most successful UT presidents in recent decades have been men who came up through the Andy Holt-designed system, created for political reasons to include campuses in the maximum number of legislative districts. These presidents understood the nuanced, complicated structure. Outsiders have not been so successful in mastering the ins and outs of the system.

We’ve had three UT presidents fired and a chancellor forced out in recent years.

When the trustees did not keep Dr. John Petersen and named an acting president for an 18-month period, it removed an impediment to reform. The trustees and Bredesen had an opportunity to restructure the UT system and give a new president a clear job description and a mission statement to make UT-Knoxville the best it can be—building on the ORNL partnership, development of a research park at Cherokee Farm, and raising academic standards. The new president could come in after the bloodletting, with a clear mandate going forward.

It appears instead that the new president will still spend time flying the UT plane to Chattanooga and Martin and Memphis and divide his time, resources, and expense account with these other campuses.

We will continue to have the UT “system” as well as the Board of Regents and the Higher Education Commission. On the Knoxville campus we will continue to have some people who work for UT-Knoxville and some people who work for the “system.” The chancellor will continue to be torn between satisfying the faculty and staff, and reporting to the president. Faculty and researchers will continue to be confused about who runs the new research park—the chancellor or the president.

If you look around the state, the business and community leaders in Memphis continue to advocate for a separate board of trustees for the University of Memphis and make it a freestanding entity. Each gubernatorial election, candidates go to Memphis and they hear the same request and they pay lip service to the idea. But nothing happens. Because if Memphis gets self-government other campuses will be requesting the same.

The faculty at UT-Chattanooga filed a lawsuit at one point to withdraw from the UT system.

MTSU continues phenomenal growth in the Nashville suburbs, demanding more resources and is a principle competitor of UT’s in seeking state funding.

There are several alternatives in higher education that have been discussed and they run the gamut. Making four-year schools independent and giving them all their own board of trustees is one suggestion. Putting them all under the Board of Regents and giving UT-Knoxville separate status is another. In either case, UT-Knoxville would be free to pursue excellence with a single focus, a single responsibility among administrators, and a single mission.

But when it comes to full-scale reform of the “system” of higher education it appears there are too many interests, too many factions, and too many barriers.

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