A windfall of federal stimulus aid and contentious legislation in Nashville shelved efforts to reform higher education in the short term, but some lawmakers say debate about restructuring colleges and universities is just heating up.
"I think higher education has been put on notice," said state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. "We are still facing a significant challange, and we will have to debate whether the current (higher education) structure is the most efficient. ... I have no doubt the legislature will continue those discussions."
Although several pieces of higher education reform legislatio were proposed during the last legislative session, none passed. An injection of $92 million this year in federal stimulus and state stabilization funds saved the University of Tennessee system from having to cut $66 million from its budget and deflected concern over its funding crisis.
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said Gov. Phil Bredesen has met with higher education leaders and plans to gather a group to discuss the issue in the next few weeks. These talks are expected to culminate in a reform proposal, which the governor could unveil around January.
"The momentum isn't going to stop until we achieve some type of change," said Sen. Berke.
Gov. Bredesen revived a discussion about higher education reorganization in March when he said state officials should focus on building one top-tier research institution -- the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Since then he has talked about collapsing the existing three higher education governing organizations, the University of Tennessee system, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission into a single board. He has also called for schools to cut duplicated graduate programs throughout the state.
At the end of May, Gov. Bredesen told the Times Free Press that he is less interested in reorganizing higher education as he is in making schools more accountable for poor graduation rates. State funding is based on student enrollment, but the governor wants funding tied in some way to graduation rates.
Sen. Watson said the legislature is "sitting back and waiting" to hear the governor's plan. However, he said some lawmakers are still interested in overhauling the current system structure and combining some existing boards and services.
In two years federal stimulus aid will disappear and the state will be left to swallow the shortfall it could have faced this year.
"Stimulus money will run out and that makes the discussion of great importance," he said. "Higher eduction is one of those big ticket funding items and it's going to drive the discussion. ... We are going to have to be very conservative with every dollar we have in higher education, and in order to do that you have to look and review the system."
As talk about higher education ebbs and flows in Nashville, higher education officials are preparing to take part in the debate.
The Tennessee Higher Education commission will release its master plan for state higher education in January and officials with the UT system and TBR have been meeting to discuss program duplications and improve efficiency.