Murrah: The urgency of reform

Murrah: The urgency of reform

February 2nd, 2010 in Opinion Columns

By Jack Murrah

Some of the comments and concerns expressed by members of the UTC faculty and administration regarding recently enacted higher education reforms require clarification and discussion.

First, the governor proposed and the legislature passed the reforms by wide margins in both houses. The legislative package was developed, not by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, but through dialogue among the governor's office, legislative leaders, and representatives of the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Board of Regents, and THEC. There was universal agreement among these parties that the state must take bold steps to increase the number of citizens with higher education degrees. A more highly educated state will benefit from higher prosperity, lower crime and better health.

Tennessee's current system of higher education produces fewer graduates per dollar invested than many states with which we compete. This is a luxury that we cannot afford. Just as our K-12 schools are being held accountable for producing better results, so must our higher education institutions.

Second, the legislature has been demanding for more than a decade that we clear the path for students to begin a four-year degree at a two-year college and complete it at a four-year university. Higher education systems all across America perform this job well, and in doing so, they increase the success of students and the efficiency of state investment in higher education. Some of Tennessee's public institutions have not done this job well, and in no place has it been more difficult than in Chattanooga. Collaboration between Chattanooga State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is notoriously weak, and our community pays a price for their failure. The time has come to lay aside differences about standards and work for the greater good of students. Failure to do so will be even more costly in the future.

Third, the intent of the higher education reform has been popularly framed as an effort to increase graduation rates. It would be more accurate to say that the primary goal is to increase degree production. The new funding formula will provide incentives to accomplish that goal, but the incentives will be tailored to individual campuses according to their individual missions. Institutions with similar public purposes are likely to have similar incentive structures. The funding formula for Chattanooga State will probably resemble the formula for the other two-year institutions. The formula for UTC will probably resemble the formula for Middle Tennessee State University more than the one for University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where higher admission standards and a greater responsibility for research will be taken into account.

I use the word "probably" in the preceding paragraph because the new funding formulas have not yet been developed. The principle of funding outcomes more than enrollments is encoded in the legislation, but the particulars will be crafted by THEC in collaboration with UT and the Board of Regents. The governor's office and the legislature will take a strong interest in the process as well. Assertions such as "THEC will require UTC to increase its graduation rate by 3 percent per year" are, at this point, neither accurate nor helpful.

Let's all just take a breath and work on this together. We cannot expect our state to increase its educational attainment without challenging students and teachers and professors to do some things differently than they have in the past.

Finally, everyone is aware that we have set our sights higher in the worst economy in decades. History tells us that this is not unusual. Bad times often lead to good changes. I believe that the governor and the legislature have produced the most progressive agenda for higher education in a generation, and the benefits will live far beyond the pain.

Jack Murrah is chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.