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Tennessee's Bid for National Academic Prominence
"Blue ribbon" study group faces a formidable task

By William Doyle and William Trombley


Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist
Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist appointed a “Council for Excellence” to solve a political problem and to improve the state’s public higher education systems.
WHEN TENNESSEE Governor Don Sundquist was faced with a political problem involving higher education last year, he reached for a time-honored device–a "blue ribbon" study group.

This one is called the Council for Excellence in Higher Education. It includes prominent business executives, civic leaders, legislators and educators, and it is charged with nothing less than moving Tennessee onto the "short list" of states with high-quality public higher education systems.

Sundquist was in need of blue-ribbon advice because internal wrangling, some of it caused by the governor himself, had reduced the effectiveness of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), the state’s planning and coordinating agency.

Although Sundquist is a popular Republican governor who is expected to be reelected in November, the turmoil at THEC was a weak point that provided potential ammunition for a Democratic opponent.

How better to deal with this problem than to appoint a group of prominent citizens to study Tennessee’s higher education system and to make recommendations for reform, in a report carefully timed to appear after the election?

The governor acknowledged the connection between the THEC controversy and creation of the blue-ribbon group. "I wish to shift the terms of our higher education debate away from the tactical and political concerns of who governs our system," he said when he appointed the council, "and focus instead on…how it functions and what it provides to our citizens, students and taxpayers."

Sundquist turned to a friend and supporter, Dennis Bottorff, chief executive officer of First American Bank in Nashville, to head the 26-member Council on Excellence.

"My background is as an expert in strategic planning," Bottorff said in an interview. "One of the reasons the governor asked me to be on this council is the ability I bring to do this kind of planning."

Bottorff said higher education must be clear about its mission if it is to survive.

"That sort of crisp focus on goals is not necessarily what higher education has been all about," he said. "If you look at the cost of higher education and the competition for funding…it becomes clear that higher education is going to have to become more tightly focused, just as is the case for other industries."

Gail Neuman, vice president for human resources and general counsel at Nissan Motor Manufacturing, said that business people on the council can bring a perspective that focuses on efficiency and cost control.

"These are the sort of questions that are commonly asked in business but may not be in higher education," she said. "There is no question that there will be accountability measures in the council’s work."

Bottorff asked Chancellor Joe Wyatt of Vanderbilt University, the state’s most prestigious private institution, for help in staffing the council. This led to the appointment of Professor James W. Guthrie, director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt, as staff director.

Guthrie is serving without salary, part of the approximately $200,000 of "in-kind" services that Vanderbilt is providing, matching the state appropriation for the council’s work.

In trying to move Tennessee onto the "short list" of high quality public higher education systems, as Governor Sundquist has requested, Bottorff and the other members of the Council for Excellence in Higher Education face a formidable task.

Tennessee has long ranked near the bottom in state support. In the last two years, as a robust economy has enabled most states to increase public higher education spending significantly, Tennessee has had no increase at all and now stands 47th among the states.

Dennis Bottorff
Nashville banker Dennis Bottorff, who heads the Tennessee Council for Excellence, seeks “crisp focus on goals” for higher education.
Money for the kind of research that would lift the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville to national academic prominence has been lacking. Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and a consultant to the new council, reported that Tennessee universities conduct less research than the national average in all major disciplinary areas.

The high school dropout rate is well above the national average and the state ranks 29th in percentage of high school graduates who go on to college. In 1996, only 19.5 percent of Tennesseans 25 and older held bachelor’s degrees or more, tenth lowest in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

More of Tennessee’s population is employed in production and laboring jobs than in technical or professional occupations, Dennis Jones reported, but the future job market is likely to require more highly trained workers.

All of this adds up to "an economic crossroads for the state," Guthrie said. "The Council was created to help the state decide how it wishes to address the shifts in the economy."

Tennessee’s problems are compounded by a system of "good old boy" politics, as one knowledgeable observer put it, and by a fierce regionalism which requires that eastern, western and "middle" Tennessee must share more-or-less equally in new construction and other state financing for higher education.

As a consequence, a higher education analyst said, the "state is replete with bricks and mortar that are not needed, and duplicative academic programs abound." There are 14 doctoral-granting institutions, public and private, in Tennessee, while the state of Washington, home of Boeing and Microsoft, has only four.

Indeed, one of the causes of dissension within the Tennessee Higher Education Commission was a disagreement over a new engineering school for the University of Tennessee at Martin, a small campus in the northwest part of the state.

State Senator Andy Womack  
Tennessee State Senator Andy Womack, once a sharp critic of the blue-ribbon group, now thinks it might be needed.  
So the Council on Excellence in Higher Education faces a difficult task if it hopes to live up to its name. But Dennis Bottorff, the chair, has a formidable reputation for success in both business and civic life.

"If you wanted to appoint people who weren’t going to do anything, you’d never appoint Denny Bottorff," said Gerald Hayward, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and a consultant on the Tennessee project.

The council will concentrate on three areas–academic programs, financing and governance. (Currently, the state has two governing boards; one has authority over the four University of Tennessee campuses, while the Tennessee Board of Regents controls the other 20 public campuses, both two-year and four-year.)

Bottorff and Guthrie have hired a battery of consultants to study these and other topics. (Among them are Patrick M. Callan and Joni E. Finney, president and vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which publishes this quarterly.)

Guthrie said the council will hold public hearings around the state and expects to have a draft report ready by November. The final report, with recommendations, is to be submitted to the governor next January.

Although Guthrie said all higher education groups have been "quite cooperative" so far, the University of Tennessee’s position has been described as "passive aggressive."

Related information
Tennessee Facts

Number of institutions of higher education: 76
Public: 24
Private: 52

Enrollment (1995—96):
Public: 193,136
Private: 52,826

State funds for higher education (1996—97):
$934.5 million

Systems of higher education:
University of Tennessee: four campuses
Tennessee Board of Regents: 20 campuses (14 two-year, six four-year)
Tennessee Higher Education Commission (coordinating board)

Percent of adults with bachelor’s degree or more:
16 percent (the national average is 20.3 percent)

Average tuition at public institutions (1996—97):
Universities: $2,080 (the national average is $3,778)
Colleges: $1,940 (the national average is $2,645)
Community Colleges: $1,056 (the national average is $1,457)

Total number of full-time-equivalent faculty (1992):

College continuation rate (1996):
53.8 percent (the national average is 58.5 percent)
"I don’t know if (the council) is necessary," Joseph Johnson, the university’s president, said in an interview. "In a certain sense, this is a fresh group of people looking at an old topic."

But Johnson, who is a council member, said he would be open to suggestions. "I would like to have a group of people that understand what we do and who might think of some ways for us to do it better."

Richard Rodda, interim director of the troubled Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said he is "genuinely curious about what the council will find…I hope we can get a fresh look at some of these issues."

In the council’s early days, one of its harshest critics was Senator Andy Womack, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and a member of the council. He charged that the group was doing planning work that should be done by THEC, and he also said it was unfair for people from Vanderbilt, a private university, to be critiquing the public campuses.

"Womack just hates Vanderbilt," one of the other council members said, "so we’ve had to push Guthrie and Vanderbilt into the background as much as possible."

Lately, however, Womack has been more conciliatory. "There is no doubt that we need a process of review for higher education in this state," he said. "We need direction from an independent body."

If the Council on Excellence has little impact on Tennessee higher education, it will come as no surprise to experts who have watched similar "blue ribbon" commissions in other states over the years.

In elementary and secondary education, these commissions sometimes have produced results, but that has happened less often in higher education.

Citizens groups that concentrate on lobbying governors and legislatures for more higher education spending sometimes succeed, experts say, pointing to the recent examples of Florida and Virginia. But those advocating systemic reform, as the Tennessee council might well do, face many obstacles.

"It is very difficult to have an objective blue-ribbon group," said Lee R. Kerschner, who served as staff director for a mid-1980s review of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. "You end up having all the interests represented, even if you didn’t start out to do that, and agreement on important issues becomes impossible."

William Chance, an Olympia, Washington, higher education consultant who has been involved with a half dozen blue-ribbon studies, said the presence of business leaders can be a mixed blessing.

"You have to have these moguls because of their clout," Chance said, but they often are too busy to attend meetings or to read materials and "they usually want everything boiled down to a one-page memo, no matter how complex the issue." As a result, he added, "you can end up with a report that is opinion rich and fact poor, so the opinions, unsupported by factual argument, are no better than your opponents’. In that situation, why should the governor and the legislature spend money on your opinions, which are probably more costly?"

Roger Benjamin, Director of RAND Education, said blue-ribbon groups are "well-meaning but, unless their recommendations can be sustained, I wonder what purpose they serve? Unless there is an implementation plan, and members of the group stick with it, the whole thing ends up being just exhortation."

On occasion, exhortation is all that is truly wanted.

Related information
Blue-Ribbon Commissions Across the Nation
Blue-Ribbon higher education commissions, like the Tennedssee Council on Excellence, are currently in vogue around the country.
Commissions are sometimes appointed "as a political strategy to put something off," said Aims C. McGuinness, Jr., senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. "The idea is to capture a set of concerns and make sure nothing happens."

If that is the strategy in Tennessee, it appears to be working. With the Council on Excellence not scheduled to report until next January, the higher education controversy has died down, according to Bill Carey, who covers the state capitol for the Nashville Tennessean. "The governor seems to have bought some time with the appointment of that commission," Carey said.

Blue-ribbon groups tend to work better if the governor who appoints them already knows what changes he or she wants and then finds commission members who agree, several experts said. They cited the example of Illinois, where Governor Jim Edgar’s ideas for reorganizing the state’s public systems three years ago were endorsed by a task force.

They also tend to be more effective in time of crisis, but these are good times for public colleges and universities in most states and "there is a tendency to leave well enough alone," said John Hoy, president of the New England Board of Higher Education.

Sometimes a blue-ribbon group can have an impact, no matter how improbable its recommendations.

Some years ago, a special commission in West Virginia proposed the "most gosh awful scheme you could imagine" for restructuring the governance of public higher education, said Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, "but it’s worked better than anyone could have expected, because of the strength of the personalities involved."

"Usually, these commissions do no harm," Musick added, "and a few leave a notable footprint."

Photos by Bill Thorup for CrossTalk

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