:Chattanooga; :Mar 28, 2009; :Front Page; :1


Governor seeking flagship university

By Joan Garrett jgarrett@timesfreepress.com

Online: See Gov. Phil Bredesen talk about a possible restructuring of higher education in Tennessee. Read previous stories. Comment.

    Gov. Phil Bredesen wants to put the University of Tennessee in Knoxville at the top of a new pecking order in a possible restructuring of higher education.

    Smaller four-year colleges such as UTC need to stop investing money in graduate programs — leaving that to the state’s larger schools — and focus on improving poor graduation rates and access to students, he said.

    “The other four-year schools are living in a shadowland right now,” said Gov. Bredesen. “They are mostly trying to be mini-UTKs or mini-Vanderbilts.”

    UT needs to pour resources into becoming one of the best colleges in the country so it can draw the brightest students and researchers. Other four-year schools need to offer fewer programs, avoid duplication and narrow their focus, he said.

    Legislators want to see higher education cut costs in these tight budget times, and one of the best ways is to trim graduate programs at smaller four-year schools, he said.

    The governor’s idea doesn’t
sit well with everyone.

    “At UTC we really have not tried to be another UT Knoxville,” said Roger Brown, chancellor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “We are not asking for doctorates in every department. That is just not our mission.”

    Eliminating graduate programs in education and nursing at regional schools such as UTC is short-sighted because those programs fulfill community needs, Dr. Brown said.

    Smaller four-year schools will protect graduate programs they deem successful, he said. For example, UTC would not want to lose its graduate engineering program, which supports the SimCenter.

    Also, future employers such as Volkswagen want to see graduate-level education spread across the state so training is accessible to employees, he said.

    NEW PLAN

    Less than a month ago, the governor said he wanted to study a merger of the state’s college systems, UT, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, as a cost-saving measure. Falling state tax revenue will force colleges and universities in Tennessee to cut $180 million from their budgets in the next two years.

    Rather than creating a super board, which combines the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, UT system and Regents, Gov. Bredesen now says he thinks state leaders should focus on developing one highlevel research institution in Tennessee — UT in Knoxville.

    “If we are going to do it, we are going to do it and set this thing up for the next 35 years,” said Gov. Bredesen. “This is not a matter of let’s tinker with something here on the side. ... There is a bipartisan sense that this might be a time to take some action.”

    Gov. Bredesen said he and legislators are studying several other state models such as California where a state college system and a university system co-exist and thrive.

    Current vacancies in high-level posts at both the UT system and Board of Regents present a window to reorganize higher education, the governor said.

    Weighing the possibility of layoffs, program cuts and tuition increases, UT and the Board of Regents have decided to leave their top posts open. Jan Simek will serve as interim president of the UT system for up to two years, and the Regents canceled its search for a new chancellor, asking the current chancellor, Charles Manning, to postpone his retirement.

    “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make these changes, and I would like to take care of it,” Gov. Bredesen said. “I think there are some clear issues that should be tackled.”

    Much of the reason Board of Regents officials decided to cancel their search for a new chancellor was because they expect to see big changes in higher education in the next two years, said Regents Vice Chairman Robert Thomas

    “I think (the two boards) should be married,” he said. “I don’t think you need two boards for four-year universities.”

    Mr. Thomas said UT should be the state’s premier institution.

    “It’s hard for the state to support two top-level institutions,” he said. “UT’s association with Oak Ridge National Laboratory gives it an advantage over the University of Memphis, period.”

    Rich Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said Gov. Bredesen is serious about a shake-up in higher education. Mr. Rhoda met with Gov. Bredesen last week to discuss a reorganization.

    LAWMAKERS

    ON THE CASE

    Legislators also have been discussing reorganizing the college systems.

    Two bills calling for an examination of higher education governance have been proposed during this legislative session. One bill, authored by Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, calls for a task force to look into the issue. Neither bill has been put on the legislative calendar.

    Sen. Berke said before schools cut programs, legislators must decide what they want higher education to do.

    “A central focus should be on graduating students, and one thing we can do is lead on making that one of the priorities,” he said. “The question should be less about the bureaucratic structure.”

    Regardless of what the higher education governance structure ultimately looks like, clear and measurable goals that improve access and graduation rates must be included, he said.

    “We have seen higher education costs continue to go up and tuition escalating,” he said. “We cannot complain about our lack of graduates in Tennessee at the same time we are raising the walls to access.”

UTC PROGRAMS

Graduate programs at UTC

    64 master’s degree programs

    17 certificate programs

    3 doctorate programs in computational engineering, physical therapy and education

Source: UTC