UT official: Public higher education to become more outcome-focused

UT official: Public higher education to become more outcome-focused

Posted: Thursday, September 2, 2010 9:02 pm

Outcomes instead of en-rollments.
That’s how public Ten-nessee higher education institutions will be judged in the future, and interim president Jan Simek says the University of Tennessee is positioned to succeed following passage in February of the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010.
Simek discussed the new law and also provided an update on the UT presidential search during the first stop of his annual fall tour Tuesday at UT Martin. He spoke to an invited group of community leaders, elected officials, university supporters and employees at a noon luncheon in the Boling University Center.
Simek, named acting president on March 1, 2009, became interim president July 1 of that year and has continued a fall tradition of touring UT campuses and units. His term as interim president will end with the anticipated naming of a new president in October. He will then return to his faculty position as Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Knoxville campus.
As Simek was named to lead UT and a search was delayed for a new Tennessee Board of Regents chancellor, he recalled that discussions began for reorganizing state public higher education into one system. The Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 emerged from these early discussions, a law that requires, among other directives, a statewide master plan for higher education, now referred to as the Public Agenda for Higher Education.
Simek described the law as “a remarkable and important roadmap for the future of higher education in our state” and “one that I think we are obliged and obligated and should feel privileged to implement.”
“It wasn’t the organization, the structure that was at issue, it was what we did. It was how we performed. It was how we served the people,” Simek said. “And very quickly, the conversation turned from structure to outcomes, focusing on how to increase the proportion of our population that has college degrees — how to maximize the quality of those degree. … Those became the central issues.”
Simek credited all involved for the discussion not becoming politically charged and added, “We began very quickly to focus on what really mattered, and the Complete College Act was the result.”
Simek reported UT is already implementing the law’s directives.
“Central to the Complete College Act is a change in the emphasis of the funding of higher education, in particular, an aspect of that funding called performance funding,” he said.
He explained that higher education funding for several decades was based on several performance criteria. The formula originally focused on enrollments, and institutions that grew in student numbers received more funding.
“It was an admirable and an important incentive when it was brought into play, because in point of fact, we needed more of our people in higher education,” he said. “But we got there. We have very large institutions.”
Higher education now needs to focus on outputs instead of growth, “on generating college graduates,” he said. In the future, Tennessee higher education institutions will be judged on criteria such as graduation rates, graduating “a more diverse array” of students, and accomplishing these goals faster and more effectively. Criteria are now being implemented to make this happen, he said, adding, “It’s a great change for higher education in the state. We are a hundred percent behind it. All of our campuses are behind it as well.”
Simek noted the law’s recognition of differences among higher-education institutions and their roles.
“We are not all the same. A community college is not the same thing as the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and should not be expected to perform, even in general measures, in the same way as a large four-year institution does,” he said. Under the law, the individual institutions are incentivized “to do what they do well and improve their performance in that regard.”
Simek said this change would benefit a university like UT Martin. “It’s critically important, because what it allows is for an institution like Martin, that does a powerful job of high-quality education in a small-university context, focusing on students who may not do well in (larger) institutions, and nurturing them through that experience. …”
The law also addresses articulation, the process by which students transfer among higher-education institutions. Simek said, “Tennessee has never had straightforward, stipulated processes for students who want to go from one campus to another.” Higher education faces a 2011 deadline for completing articulation agreements with community colleges, and he told the audience that UT is making significant progress in meeting this requirement. He added, “This is very important, because in terms of the effective use of higher education, we have sorely underutilized our community colleges as part of the higher-education system.”
Simek noted that these changes are coming in difficult economic times. Beginning with the 2011 academic year, UT’s state appropriation will be reduced by 20 percent or $112 million from the base budget, he said. Federal stimulus funds have helped to offset cutbacks in state funding, but those funds won’t be available starting in July 2011.
“Next year, those (funds) are gone, but I also assure you that every single campus has a plan to absorb those cuts. In most cases, they’ve already absorbed them, and the stimulus funds are simply being used to fill in behind the budget cuts that have already occurred, have already been made,” he said.
Even so, Simek said that the funding decrease would be noticed. “When the stimulus funds go away, and I think it’s important to say this, there will be pain,” he said. “Classes will be larger. There will be fewer sections, because there will be fewer faculty. There was no way to absorb these kinds of budget reductions and not have an impact on the classroom.”
Still, he said that the high quality of education at the University of Tennessee has been preserved, and he thanked the General Assembly for its support.
“The times are difficult, but you’ve heard me say it before. The University of Tennessee and every one of its campuses is a great institution, and I would still argue, even harder than I have before, that we are the best institution we’ve ever been in our history,” he said.
Although Simek talked about his return to teaching, he said that he remains focused on his current duties and his involvement in the presidential search. He is a non-voting member of the search advisory committee and, in late September, this committee will present a list of candidates to the main search committee. The search committee will then recommend a short list of candidates for interviews by the UT Board of Trustees. A new president will be elected during the next board meeting on Oct. 21 in Knoxville and Simek sees a successful conclusion to the search.
“I’m convinced, folks, that we’re going to get a great president for the University of Tennessee,” he said.
Published in The Messenger 9.2.10

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