Separation of Powers

Turn UT-Knoxville campus over to people supposed to run it

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

If you didn't read the opinion piece by Warren Neel in last Sunday's News Sentinel Perspective section I urge you to dig it out or find it online. It was a thoughtful and a thought-provoking piece, and as former head of UT's business school and a former finance commissioner for the state of Tennessee, he has some valuable insights.

While the piece was complimentary of UT President John Petersen's efforts, Neel goes on to talk about some systemic problems in higher education and raises some challenging questions.

He suggests greater autonomy for the Knoxville campus. Having the president of the UT system and its five campuses on the Knoxville campus leads to a great deal of confusion. I bet you couldn't find one person in 10 who knows that neither Petersen nor any of his predecessors is supposed to have direct operational control of the Knoxville campus. Neel suggests the system offices be moved off campus. That would make it clear the Knoxville campus is under the supervision of Chancellor Loren Crabtree in the same manner as the heads of UT-Chattanooga and UT-Martin, and so forth.

The intermingling of the system and the operation of the Knoxville campus has always caused confusion. In talking with past chancellors of the school, I have often been told they felt they had little power to innovate, run their own show or to advance the university without the president looking over their shoulder.

It is also little known or understood that the chancellor, the supposed head of the UT-Knoxville campus, has no control over the athletic department. The athletic department (and the coaches) answers to the president of the UT system, Dr. Petersen, not to the head of the college that allegedly employs them.

Neel asks how strange it would be if the Board of Regents (non-UT state colleges) took control of the athletic department at Middle Tennessee State or the University of Memphis? What he doesn't say, but I will, is that the present structure is probably a result of big gubernatorial campaign and university donors on the Board of Trustees. They hire the system president, and the combination of the UT president and the UT trustees makes for a cozy relationship when it comes to hiring and firing coaches, securing football tickets and setting skybox drinking policies. It is also easier for politicians and big donors to also have direct access and influence in such matters.

Neel makes the point that athletic recruits to the UT-Knoxville campus have little contact with the faculty and the educational side of the university. They are recruited by, awarded scholarships by and brought to the campus by an organization that does not answer to the local campus administration. The coaches also have little contact with the educational institution that surrounds their semi-private sports corporation.

Neel suggests the UT athletic director report to the chancellor of the UT-Knoxville campus: â“âathletics needs to be part of the mission and accountability of the UTK administration.â”

UTK is the only Southeastern Conference campus where the athletics department does not report to the head of the campus, says Neel. If the current system makes sense, then Petersen's office should take over athletics departments at UT-Chattanooga and UT-Martin.

Going beyond Neel's piece, the mingling of responsibility for UTK and the system president is only one of the organizational problems with higher education in Tennessee. You have the UT trustees, you have the Board of Regents, and you have the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. This last group, I suppose, is to referee between the two higher education systems in the state.

It would make sense to have a president or chancellor of all higher education institutions in the state answering to a board comprised of delegates from all the participating institutions. Give site-based management to the campuses with performance standards and incentives.

The present structure grew out of the leadership of the legendary Andy Holt. Holt was the consummate politician; as leader of the Tennessee Education Association, he dealt with governors and the Legislature to advance education. His tenure as UT president grew the institution and secured funding for it. But there aren't any Andy Holts around these days, and the network of friendships, perks and political influence among UT trustees, politicians and big donors sometimes obscures the greater mission of the institution.

Gov. Phil Bredesen will be appointing three UT trustee positions this summer. One would hope he would have some serious conversations with candidates about the nature of higher education, its mission and whether it needs reform.

He might spend some time talking with faculty members, department heads and the chancellors at various institutions. He might find some thought-provoking ideas.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at .


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