With less pressure for deep budget cuts and the top higher education posts up for grabs, Gov. Phil Bredesen revived the idea of consolidating the state's university systems.
"This is a time to look at revisions," Gov. Phil Bredesen told the Times Free Press Thursday. "Certainly the notion occurred to a lot of people, including me, to put (the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee) together."
The governor said the "draconian" cuts facing higher education will likely not happen this budget cycle because federal stimulus money - up to $500 million over the next two years - will stave off a second wave of budget reductions.
Higher education leaders have been waiting anxiously to know whether an additional 5 percent would be added to the $181 million already being cut from higher education. Gov. Bredesen said the stimulus package has saved colleges and universities from those reductions.
Now, he said the state and higher education officials will have some time to look at reworking Tennessee higher education entities, especially since UT President John Petersen announced his resignation Wednesday and TBR Chancellor Charles Manning is set to retire soon.
"It is an interesting window of opportunity," he said.
But Gov. Bredesen said in two weeks he may decide not to go forward, calling the situation "fluid."
UT Trustee Vice Chairman Jim Murphy said board members may look at merging the position of system president and the Knoxville campus chancellor.
Jan Simek will be interim UT president for up to two years as board members review the current system structure, he said. There is no rush for the board to find a permanent replacement for Dr. Petersen, Mr. Murphy said.
Combining the system president and UT chancellor was implemented in 1999 by former UT President J. Wade Gilley. Mr. Murphy said the structure has positives and negatives.
Smaller campuses such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and UT Martin may not like the idea of a joint leadership with Knoxville. Those campuses may lose some of their autonomy and sway with the administration, Mr. Murphy said.
Joe Johnson, former UT president who retired in 1999 but served as interim president in 2003, said in 1969 UT established a system president and campus chancellors. The UT president led the Knoxville, Memphis and Martin campuses prior to the merger with the University of Chattanooga.
Dr. Gilley returned to a model that combined under one leader the control of the system and the Knoxville campus. His successor, John Shumaker, re-established chancellors on all UT campuses.
Dr. Johnson said many people believed the "Gilley model" streamlined operations and saved money by combining positions. UTC and UT Martin, however, felt left out, he said.
"I think the people in an organization and how they work together have a lot more to do with cost and effectiveness than what the organizational chart looks like," he said. "But it is always ample time to look at the structure."
Rich Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said he is not surprised higher education officials and state leaders are musing about different higher education structures.
However, he said, if officials want to create a "super board," they should be careful not to act too quickly.
"There is far more cooperation (between higher education systems) in Tennessee than other states," he said. "We get high marks for being well organized and civil in the way we govern higher education."
Mr. Rhoda said a 1997 commission studied governance impact on accountability, excellence and affordability in higher education and found that the systems' organization did not negatively effect those factors.
Board of Regents Chancellor Manning said he wants to see legislators define what they want from higher education and what they are willing to provide financially to support those goals before they begin to call for structural change.
"(The structure) is working the way it is right now," said Dr. Manning.
In 2006 Gov. Bredesen said he would like to "lead a dialogue" on restructuring Tennessee's higher education system. "I can certainly imagine an approach where you put the four-year schools in one pond and the community colleges in another because they serve somewhat different roles and markets," he said.