Higher Education Legislation

January 26, 2010

To: UT System-wide Faculty and Staff
From: Interim President Jan Simek
Re: Higher Education Legislation

Today, I was pleased to be a guest of Gov. Phil Bredesen at the signing of a new law that greatly affects our system of higher education in Tennessee.

There has been much discussion about this legislation that was approved during last week's special session. 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. A block of 41 hours will satisfy general education requirements, and a block of 19 hours will satisfy pre-major course requirements. 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 to ease the transferability of general education curricula in Tennessee.

Faculty from the Tennessee Board of Regents and UT began working on the 19 credit pre-major curricula for selected majors that see the most transfers -- business, psychology and communications. So far, agreements have been made for general business pre-major curricula, and work is currently being done to agree on psychology curricula. And we will continue until the task is completed for the remaining majors.

The creation of a new graduate degree program that builds upon the UT-Oak Ridge partnership is a hugely 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. All comprehensive research institutions have medical programs, and the University is very fortunate to have an excellent teaching and research enterprise for medicine. Medical research is a key area for innovation and discovery and now overlaps with many disciplines. This new partnership in Memphis will accelerate our emphasis on the research capacity at UTHSC.

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.