PRESIDENT’S UPDATE – University of Tennessee Interim President Jan Simek was at UT?Martin on Aug. 31 as part of his annual fall tour of UT campuses. Simek is welcomed by UT Martin Chancellor Tom Rakes.
While droves of incoming freshmen were roaming the halls for their first week of classes at UTM, local leaders and UTM officials met with the UT President to discuss the future of the UT system.
Interim President of the University of Tennessee, Jan Simek, spoke to local leaders and UTM representatives at a banquet held Tuesday at the Boling University Center. The meeting – with guests such as Representative Mark Maddox and Weakley County Commissioner Jimmy Westbrook – was a chance for Simek to raise important guidelines that he hopes the next UT President will follow.
One of the major talking points in Simek’s speech was to increase the graduation rates of students throughout the entirety of the UT system.
“I honestly believe that the more of a commitment you make to taking freshmen as they come in and guiding them through their transition, the better your graduation rate will be,“ Simek said. “Most important of all is advising. The more attention that is put to that, the more productivity there will be for students.”
Simek states that the UT system is doing everything it can to bring graduation time down to four years, and that it can do this by utilizing surrounding community colleges. The current national average for graduation time is roughly six years.
Simek also hopes that UT can increase the value of bachelor’s degrees in a flooded job market.
“With resources you can do a whole lot more,” Simek said. “By making classes smaller and making more classes available. As we work through these fiscal difficulties … we have to be very strategic in how we invest that money. We have to invest it to make sure these ends are met.”
When asked how UT hopes to improve the competitiveness of their diplomas, he states that the UT system is constantly working to increase the value of their undergraduate degrees.
“We’re always in the process of making sure the degrees are as good as they can be. That’s our strength,” Simek said. “Setting your sights high and really competing to get there is the best thing we can do so that when students come out their degree is worth something.”
The current national average for the time it takes to attain an undergraduate diploma is roughly six years. Currently college graduates hold a 4.5 percent share of national unemployment numbers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Simek went on to say that fundraising is an important part of making sure the UT system reaches these goals. He said that hard times for faculty and students could be ahead if fundraising challenges aren’t met. Stimulus monies received by the UT system will be running out at the end of this year, meaning UT will take a hit from the budget restructurings that have occurred over the course of the past two years.
“When the stimulus funds go away, there will be pain,“ Simek said. “Classes will be larger, there will be fewer sections because there will be fewer faculty. We’re going to work very hard to minimalize that and we’re already working on it, but there will be pain. Students will still be able to get their degrees in a timely manner.”
According to Simek, the last resort for increasing funding should be tuition increases; he pointed out that hikes in costs for attendance are inevitable. UT Martin recently implemented a nine percent tuition increase, bringing average full-time tuition to roughly $3000 a semester.
In regards to the search for the next UT President, Simek only offered guidelines for whoever his replacement will be.
“We don’t know who the candidates are being developed, and we won’t know that until September,” Simek said.
“A vocal spokesperson for higher education in the state of Tennessee needs to be a key internal advocate for why higher education is important. Without such a voice, the value of institutions like this is frankly lost among many of our citizens.”
UTM Chancellor Tom Rakes, who doted on Simek’s track record as Interim President, stated that UTM was right in line with many of these changes.
“[Simek] has been a great supporter of this campus and has also demonstrated that the University of Tennessee really does cover the state in mission and service to our citizens,“ Rakes said. “In this capacity he wasn’t just a placeholder. He has been and continues to be very active and that’s the kind of individual we need in that spot.”
In the Chancellor’s strategic plan to faculty he stated that UTM’s budget – which implemented a major restructuring in the Fall of 2009 – is currently “in good shape.”