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KNOXVILLE — Funding Gov. Don Sundquist’s proposed budget is the first step in moving the University of Tennessee up in the ranks of flagship institutions, UT’s president said Wednesday.

Dr. J. Wade Gilley said the proposed $44 million in new funds for UT academic programs would end a decade of little or no increases. The governor also proposed $74.5 million for new buildings, renovation and maintenance projects.

Also proposed is $15 million for research, half of the state’s commitment to Gilley’s Tennessee Plan for Academic Excellence.

Sundquist said in his budget address that the state must reverse the decade-old trend of not providing adequate funding for higher education.

“I want to help our public universities become places that attract our best and brightest students,” the governor said. “Last year, only 18 percent of Tennessee’s best and brightest high school seniors even applied to our public colleges and universities.

“Too many choose to take their brainpower and promise beyond Tennessee’s borders. This is a trend we must reverse.”

Gilley said he hopes the Legislature will fund the governor’s recommendation for higher education.

“Gov. Sundquist, state officials and many legislators are correct that it is time for higher education to move up on the priority list for new dollars,” Gilley said.

The chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Andy Womack, D-Murfreesboro, said Monday he agrees, and that higher education has taken a backseat to K-12 over the last decade.

“It’s their turn. They have been patient, and I think we need to fulfill our commitment to them.”

The increased visibility for UT on Capitol Hill is the result, Gilley said, of a lobbying effort by UT students as well as UT initiatives to cut its administrative costs.

More than 100 UT students, led by Student Government President Will Carver, were in the gallery for the governor’s budget address Monday. Students, wearing their “Fund UT Now” buttons, also were active during a special legislative session in November on tax reform.

Since he arrived in August as UT president, Gilley has spoken of the need for reducing administrative costs and plowing the money into academic programs. Administrative hiring has been frozen.

In December he announced a streamlining of UT’s top administration as the first step toward saving $30 million over five years. Gilley also announced a cap on first-year student enrollment at UT’s main campus in Knoxville.

Proposed dollars for the academic excellence plan would be the state’s share of a $150 million effort to double the number of National Merit Scholars at UT’s three campuses, improve faculty salaries and fund up to five new research initiatives. The remaining $120 million would come from private fundraising, cost-cutting and other UT sources such as licensing revenues.

In addition to the streamlining efforts and the Tennessee Plan for Academic Excellence, the UT president appointed a “Committee for the Future of UT” to look at what the university should be in the next 20 years.

The committee for the future will make its report to the university’s board of trustees Thursday in Memphis.