Mention the University of Tennessee and the Top 25 in the same breath and just about everyone -- in the state and outside it -- naturally assumes that you're talking about the school's football or basketball teams, or another of its highly rated athletic programs. UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek hopes to change that.

While UT's name is routinely heard in almost any discussion of top-tier collegiate athletic programs, it rarely is associated with a far more important listing -- the ranking of the nation's top public research institutions. That latter designation depends on criteria such as undergraduate retention and graduation rates, research grants and awards and the number and quality of graduate education programs. Rightly or wrongly, UT rarely receives positive mention when those topics are discussed.

That is unfortunate. The Knoxville campus deserves more credit than it receives for its academic accomplishments. It does not rank in the Top 25, or even the Top 50, public research institutions. It is, however, ranked at 52 among 600 research institutions. That ranking certainly is respectable, but complacency is not acceptable. The goal should be to rank among the very best in the nation. The university wants that. State residents should demand it.

Positive response

Gov. Phil Bredesen gave form to those expectations. Earlier this year, he challenged the UT administrative staff to become a Top 25 research university. Dr. Cheek and a task force have responded positively to the governor's timely call for improvement. Over the past few months, university personnel have drafted a comprehensive plan to improve UT's ranking and to propel it into the Top 25. It is a plan worthy of implementation by the state's educational and political leaders and by its residents.

The proposal addresses the gaps in graduation and retention rates, in doctoral degrees awarded, in spending per student and in average faculty salary that separate UT from Top 25 institutions. The disparities are telling.

The current graduation rate at UT is 60 percent, 15 points below the average rate of 75 percent at top 25 schools. The percentage of students at UT who return as sophomores after their freshman year is 84 percent, below the average retention rate of 90 percent at top tier universities. UT awarded 277 doctoral degrees and 1,845 master's and professional degrees in the 2008-2009 academic year. Top 25 schools awarded an average of 486 and 2,130, respectively, in the same period.

There are shortfalls elsewhere, too. UT spends about $16,000 annually per student, while Top 25 schools spend $24,300. UT trails, as well, in average faculty salary, in research funding and in financial resources, which includes both operating expenses and endowment. Closing the gaps and advancing UT in the rankings won't come easy, but Dr. Cheek correctly say the effort is necessary if the state is to prosper.

Theirs is a multifaceted plan that would require basic changes in some areas of UT's academic program and minor ones elsewhere on campus. The proposed changes are propelled by necessity and grounded in fact, but none will be easily or quickly implemented. All will require careful stewardship of available funds as well as securing additional moneys.

The heart of the plan is to retain more students between their freshman and sophomore years and to graduate a higher percentage of students in a more timely fashion. Currently, five or even six years to graduate is the norm. That's not efficient and shortening the time frame to four years, possibly including a summer school term or more, would help UT achieve its Top 25 goal. There's one problem, though. Currently, Tennessee's lottery-funded scholarship program covers five years, but cannot be used for summer school.

Legislative assistance is the key to changing the scholarship rules, and discussions about doing so have taken place. The outcome of those talks remains uncertain. They should continue.

UT is moving in other areas, as well, to promote more higher retention and more timely graduation. Stronger and better advising programs for students when they arrive on campus and as they progress in their academic careers are vital, Dr. Cheek says, and steps to implement that are underway.

Improving the advisory system and making other changes won't come cheap. Neither will building the academic foundations that are crucial to graduate education programs or improving funding for faculty salaries, infrastructure and endowment. That's particularly so in light of recent multimillion dollar cuts in UT's appropriations from the state and the bleak prospects of improved funding in the next couple of years.

Move forward

Nevertheless, UT should move forward. Becoming a Top 25 public research institution would bring tremendous benefits to the university and to the state. A Top 25 ranking would increase the value of a UT education and make it more attractive to students and more valuable to prospective employers. That's a major consideration when keeping Tennessee's best and brightest in the state after graduation is a rising concern.

Tennessee's economic growth and development are tied directly to the quality of education state residents receive at UT and other state schools. If the state's flagship institution advances to the Top 25 -- even if the process takes several years -- that will send a positive and transformative message. It will signal that Tennessee means business when it comes to educating its citizens and that those citizens are prepared for the contemporary workplace. Any other message would ill serve the state and its residents.

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