published Sunday, August 21st, 2011

UTC: Challenging new year

When classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga begin Monday, students, faculty and staff will find a campus undergoing significant transformation. It seems safe to say that in many ways UTC is entering a new era. Changing admissions standards, reduced state appropriations, a revised tuition structure, new rules designed to improve retention and graduation, and major infrastructure projects suggest that is the case. Taken as a whole, the coming academic year presents Chancellor Roger Brown and staff with challenges that must be met if the institution is to maintain a positive trajectory.

The most pressing issue is financial. UTC, like almost every institution of higher learning in the state and nation, must now do more with less money.

Major cuts in state appropriations -- 25 percent in two years -- make it more difficult for UTC to properly pay faculty and staff, to provide routine upkeep and to purchase or maintain up-to-date classroom equipment and subscriptions. The reduction in funding also continues the disturbing trend of shifting a growing share of the cost for higher education from the state to students and parents.

More investment needed

That fiscal transfer is detrimental in both the short and long term to the state. Government should invest more heavily in educating the highly trained workforce Tennessee will need to attract well-paying jobs in a competitive workplace.

Unfortunately, there's little concrete that Brown, faculty, students and UTC supporters can do to reverse the Legislature's short-sighted actions. They can advocate for higher education and stress its importance, of course, but that is unlikely to loosen purse strings or to prompt most legislators to take a broader and more insightful view of the role of colleges and universities in the state. UTC will have to do the best it can do within the fiscal constraints imposed upon it.

In many instances, it seems to be doing so.

More, and better, students

Tougher admissions standards coupled with new regulations that tie retention and graduation rates to funding are altering campus demographics. The changes are positive.

Enrollment has increased by 30 percent in six years, but more importantly, a higher percentage of those who begin classes at UTC remain for additional years of schooling. The freshman retention rate has risen by 10 percent over the past decade. Another indication of rising student quality is the gradual elimination of developmental, sometimes called remedial, courses. They're being phased out this year and none will be offered in fall 2012.

There's some positive news about UTC infrastructure as well. After years of waiting, construction of a new library in the heart of the campus is under way. Phase II of the Aquatics and Recreation Center should be completed within the month. The first phase has proved enormously popular on campus, and the looming completion of the aquatics portion of the facility has created a great deal of excitement on campus. Other campus additions and changes should win a wide following, too.

New math center

A new math center in what was once the lobby of Maclellan Gym will provide assistance for those who need help with math courses. It will be outfitted with computers, offer self-paced math instruction and will be staffed by graduate assistants who can provide help to those who request it. Many students say math is their most challenging course in college. The new math center should help reduce anxiety about the subject.

Dining options on campus have expanded. Campus Crossroads will be welcome on a campus where all resident students are required to purchase some type of meal plan. The facility is environmentally friendly and offers a broad, all-you-can-eat menu. Diners will use real dishes, glasses and silverware. There's no takeout available, so there's no need for Styrofoam or similar landfill-clogging materials. The Crossroads, then, is a win-win for the university community and for the environment.

Despite the progress and advances in many areas of academic and campus life, two problems that direct and adversely affect students remain -- on-campus parking and housing. UTC administrators are working to resolve them, but resolution remains elusive.

The parking problem is common to urban institutions like UTC. The number of spaces available is exceeded by the number of spaces needed by students, faculty and staff.

Leased parking lots

This semester, UTC will lease two parking lots from Unum, adding 167 spaces to the campus inventory. There are nearly 400 student parking spaces at Engel Stadium -- near but not on campus -- and buses to shuttle those who park there to campus. That still won't meet demand. A proposed parking garage might ease the problem, but that's at least two or more years from fruition.

UTC is moving from a commuter to a more residential campus, but the housing shortage slows that momentum. About 200 students who want to live on campus this semester can't. Initially, they'll be housed at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel. Shuttle buses will connect them to campus. Staff on site will serve the students at the hotel, but it won't provide the same experience as living on campus. Additional dorm space scheduled to become available next fall and plans for privately funded student housing adjacent to campus could ease the problem in coming years.

As always, a new school year brings bright spots and difficult issues. Acknowledgment of both is necessary to progress. Institutionally, UTC seems to have done that. The real test, though, starts Monday, when the campus returns to full vigor and administrators must deal with the day-to-day demands of collegiate life even as they work to maintain a balanced and beneficial course for the university's future in the face of fiscal constraints.

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