By Dr. Jan Simek, UT Interim President
I was pleased to be a guest of Gov. Phil Bredesen on Jan. 26 at the signing of a new law that greatly affects our system of higher education in Tennessee.
Because you are concerned about the future of your alma mater and how it will be affected, I want you to know the University of Tennessee supported the legislation and was involved in its passage every step of the way.
The entire UT System will benefit from the four main aspects of this reform:
- Emphasis on graduation rates
- New articulation agreements
- Expansion of the UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory partnership
- The UT Health Science Center’s involvement in the Memphis Research Consortium
When the discussion of reorganizing higher education began last year, the University of Tennessee advocated for a change in funding and measurement that rewards higher graduation and retention rates — what I call “throughput” — instead of higher enrollment, or simply “input.” The governor had the same belief, and I am pleased to say this change will be enacted.
While UT Knoxville has the highest graduation rate of the state’s public four-year institutions at nearly 60 percent, we are striving for better. Our goal is for UT Knoxville to reach 80 percent, which is more on par with peer institutions such as the University of Georgia and the University of Florida.
Graduation rates at UT Martin and UT Chattanooga are close to 40 percent, and those need to move up to 60 percent.
Improving from 40 percent to 60 percent is a challenge as moving the needle higher and higher becomes ever more difficult. The move from 60 percent to 80 percent is an even bigger challenge, but we must and we will tackle it.
We have ambitious goals for increasing graduation rates at each undergraduate campus over the next five years. I have discussed these goals with the chancellors, and they will be assembling plans to achieve them.
Now let’s talk about articulation. There has been some confusion about what this new agreement means, and hopefully I can allay your concerns.
The new policy, as approved by this legislation, further acts upon prior legislation passed in 2000 and 2008. It calls for development of a university-track program of 60 undergraduate semester hours that can be seamlessly transferred between public institutions. It’s important to note faculty at each institution will absolutely maintain control over the content of their own curriculum. This legislation does not impact the admissions standards at our institutions.
We believe this new policy is good for all students and certainly for the University. Provosts and faculty senators from each campus have been involved in these efforts.
The creation of a new graduate degree program that builds upon the UT-Oak Ridge partnership is an important step in the University’s research efforts. The Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education at UT Knoxville will increase the number of STEM doctoral students and add about 200 Oak Ridge researchers to the UTK faculty. Our goal and the governor’s goal is to lift the research profile of UT Knoxville to that of other premier institutions in the United States. This will benefit not only UT Knoxville, but UT as a whole, and ultimately our entire state.
New collaborations also are being developed for the UT Health Science Center through the Memphis Research Consortium with the University of Memphis and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. A robust medical program is a common denominator among the most successful comprehensive research institutions. This new partnership in Memphis will enhance our increased emphasis on the research capacity at UT Health Science Center, and we intend to make the most of it.
I am excited about what this new legislation means for higher education in Tennessee in general and for the University of Tennessee in particular. As our state’s land-grant research institution, UT is tasked with providing education, research and outreach for the benefit of all Tennesseans. These new steps will help us continue to make the University of Tennessee the best it has ever been.