UT's road to becoming a premier public research institution is filled with twists, turns and a few potholes.

But that has not stopped Gov. Phil Bredesen, more than half way through his second term, from pushing UT officials to begin that trek toward national recognition.

"For me it is a matter of pride," Gov. Bredesen said. "We ought to stand right in the top tier of states in this field. There is no reason why we ought to look up to Virginia or North Carolina or Georgia."

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville doesn't make the top 25 list of public research universities in any of nine categories the Center for Measuring University Performance compiles. Categories range from endowments to the number of doctoral graduates. Fourteen Southeastern universities, excluding UT, are named in one or more of the top 25 rankings, the center says.

Gov. Bredesen and state legislators aim to be on the list. With a top-tier school, Tennessee could be a magnet for industry and talent, the governor said.

Just as the University of California helped spawn Silicon Valley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill played a role in the development the Research Triangle, UT could lead a new era for the state, he said.

"If you look at (high ranking) schools, they have been engines for developing the economy of an entire region," he said. "It helps to bring the technical knowledge that investors and companies are going to find attractive."

Building an educational powerhouse that can rival the University of Virginia or the University of North Carolina likely will reshape the state's other institutions such as UTC, which Gov. Bredesen said are "trying to be everyone to everybody."

Regional four-year colleges are expected to find their place in a pecking order and watch much of the growth in graduate offerings spring up in Knoxville. The move is a political tinderbox, according to one UTC dean.

"It is going to be very important for Chattanooga to have a university, not just an undergraduate college, if we going to play role in future development," said Richard Casavant, dean of the UTC business school. "In Chattanooga we need to be careful not to be trampled when the elephants start dancing in the room."

Experts also said "tiering up" at UT requires focused leadership and money, both of which are in short supply.

The UT system has no permanent leader since President John Petersen left the post under a cloud of criticism in February, and board members are haggling with the interim president, Jan Simek, over whether to begin a presidential search. The system has gone through three presidents in eight years.

The Center for Measuring University Performance

PDF: Governors Council on Higher Education

Richest public universities

1. University of Michigan: $7.6 billion endowment

4. University of Virginia: $4.8 billion

7. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: $2.3 billion

10. University of Washington: $2.1 billion

25. University of Iowa: $882 million

31. University of Georgia: $697 billion

32. University of Tennessee at Knoxville: $688 billion

Source: The Center for Measuring University Performance

Top public research institutions

The Center for Measuring University Performance compiles lists of top public research institutions to compare how schools perform in nine categories ranging from endowment and donations to national academy membership and number of doctoral degrees awarded. These institutions have at least one measure in the top 25 list nationally:

1. University of California-Berkeley

2. University of California-Los Angeles

3. University of Florida

4. University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

5. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

6. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

7. University of Wisconsin-Madison

8. Georgia Institute of Technology

9. Ohio State University-Columbus

10. Pennsylvania State University-University Park

11. University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh

12. University of Washington-Seattle

13. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

14. Texas A&M University

15. University of California-San Diego

16. University of Texas-Austin

17. University of Arizona

18. University of California-San Francisco

19. University of Virginia

20. Purdue University

21. University of Maryland-College Park

22. Michigan State University

23. University of California-Davis

24. University of Iowa

25. University of Texas Medical Center-Dallas

26. University of Colorado-Boulder

27. North Carolina State University

28. University of Texas Anderson Cancer Center

29. Rutgers the State University of New Jersey

30. University of California-Irvine

31. University of Kentucky

32. Indiana University-Bloomington

33. University of California-Santa Barbara

34. University of Georgia

35. University of Utah

36. University of Buffalo

37. University of Cincinnati

38. Oregon Health and Science University

39. University of Colorado Health Science Center

40. University of Kansas-Lawrence

41. University of Maryland- Baltimore

42. University of Alabama-Birmingham

43. University of Delaware

44. Temple University

Top donations at public universities

1. University of California at Los Angeles: $456 million

2. University of Wisconsin at Madison: $410 million

3. Indiana University: $408 million

4. University of California at San Francisco: $366 million

5. University of Michigan at Ann Arbor: $333 million

6. University of Minnesota: $307 million

7. University of Washington: $302 million

8. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: $292 million

9. University of California at Berkeley: $285 million

10. University of Texas at Austin: $282 million

25. Michigan State University: $128 million

41. University of Tennessee at Knoxville: $97 million

53. University of Georgia: $77 million

Source: Council for Aid to Education

Trustees fear that Gov. Bredesen's plans to overhaul higher education could make the top job irrelevant.

As for money, UT administrators said increasing its current endowment of $688 million to $882 million requires a doubling of current fundraising staff.

"It is a difficult time to do this," said Henry Nemcik, UT system vice president for advancement. "But to move any further than we are, we have to invest more funds in fundraising and staff."

UT is nearly $200 million away from having an endowment in the top tier and more than $100 million away from having one of the top-level research engines in the country, according to the Center For Measuring University Performance's 2008 report.

In total research spending the school is ranked 47th in the country, and in endowment size it ranked 32nd in the country. For cash donations UT ranked 41st, the report shows.

Under a Microscope

Improving the national profile of UT before his second term ends in January 2011 is a key component of the governor's plan for restructuring higher education.

And lawmakers say there couldn't be a better time to shepherd a sweeping higher education reform.

State Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, said legislators want to look closely at higher education since the top posts of the UT system and the Tennessee Board of Regents are up for grabs. Lawmakers, enveloped by the state's financial strains, want to put university spending and performance under the microscope.

"There is a great deal of interest in looking at the future of higher education," said the former chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. "It is certainly an opportunity to link the state's economic and education goals."

Serious dialogue about doctoring higher education is not new. In fact, a 10-year-old report commissioned by Gov. Don Sundquist called for many of the changes that will be peddled in Nashville this summer.

The report called on the school to "aim for a Top 25 ranking as a public research university," and make distinctions among institutions.

It also had harsh words about the state's college and university organization.

"Tennessee's current higher education is a cumbersome patchwork of structures assembled from historical accretion and political expediency. These structures are not organizationally rational. If one were to start with a clean slate, almost assuredly no one would design the existing dual higher education system," the report states.

The 1999 report had its critics, including former UT system President Joe Johnson, and little resulted from its findings. In this round of talks about higher education, the governor said he doesn't want to duplicate what Gov. Sundquist did.

He wants to develop a plan through a hand-selected ad-hoc committee rather than a formal legislative committee proposed by state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga.

Sen. Berke said he wants to see a committee - whether it's ad-hoc or formal - set strict guidelines for higher education officials in areas such as graduation rates or national rankings. Schools that don't meet set standards could see their state funding cut and or growth in graduate programs limited, he said.

"Higher education has to be accountable," he said. "We can't continue in the same vein, and everyone recognized that, but the only way to change is through clear goals and ramifications for failing."

The governor said he also wants to create guidelines with teeth. He is considering a change to the current funding model applied by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

State funding currently is based on student enrollment, but the governor wants funding tied in some way to graduation rates.

"That current model pushed (school officials) to a strategy of: Let's fill up the freshman class, get a lot of money in here, and we don't have a strong stake in how many come out on the other end," Gov. Bredesen said.

He said schools also should be financially rewarded for graduating students in specific areas in high demand such as allied health, science, engineering, technology and math.

At the same time, the governor and lawmakers said increasing funding for colleges and universities is not on the table.

"inevitable" shift

Sen. Berke said he doesn't foresee the percentage of state funding for higher education increasing in years to come.

"The state can't afford it," he said. "You can't match appropriations with higher education growth."

The governor agrees and called a shift from public to private support "inevitable."

"It is not just Tennessee," he said. "Every governor I talk to says, 'The days in higher education where you just go back to the Legislature every year for some more money are just coming to an end.'"

UT trustees and staff are investigating funding models and best practices of schools within the top 25 of public research schools. They plan to present a report on their findings June 9.

The research has made one thing clear: The most illustrious schools have the most people asking for money.

UT has 56 development officers, a staff dwarfed by top-tier schools such as the University of North Carolina where 137 people are employed as fundraisers. The University of Virginia has a development staff of 110, and the University of Florida has a staff of 77.

And some of the schools with bigger fundraising staff receive a smaller percentage of their budgets from the state than UT, according to a Foundation Study Committee report. Thirty percent of UT's overall budget comes from the state. UVA receives only 8 percent in state appropriations and the University of Texas receives 18 percent, the report shows.

Since the 1980s, UT alumni have doubled to 277,302, but the system's fundraising staff has grown modestly. Ten additions were made in the past five years, said Mr. Nemcik.

"With the existing staff we are not able to meet the needs of the institution," he said.

Along with pouring more dollars into fundraising, Mr. Nemcik said UT needs to develop a separate entity to care for the endowment's investments.

Right now UT Treasurer Butch Peccola spends only 30 percent of his time managing the system's portfolio, while most top-tier institutions have entire companies devoted to maximizing investments, he said.

"They have a dedicated group overseeing investments ... an investment management company," said Mr. Nemcik.

Yet, the money needed to beef up fundraising is scarce, said Jim Murphy, UT board vice chairman. In fact, board members may begin charging donors for their donations to pool some money to expand the development staff.

"Some of the other campuses impose on each donation a fee to help pay the cost of fundraising," he said. "We have never done that, and the reason we haven't done that is because donors don't like that."

Fundraising experts agree that if UT is going to climb the rankings it must step up its fundraising efforts and practice smart investment management, said Anne Kaplan, founder for the Council for Aid to Education, a group that studies university endowments and donations nationwide.

"You can't do it with a small staff," said Ms. Kaplan. "The people that have top endowments in the country have enormous advancement program staff."

A lot of universities are cutting their development staff because of overall budget cuts, a move she called counterintuitive.

Twenty years ago there were almost no public universities among the top 25 higher education endowments, but today several dominate the list. Endowments will be the financial backbone of more and more institutions in years to come, especially as state appropriations continue to dwindle in states such as Tennessee, she said.

"The line between public and private is getting blurred," she said.