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Loren CrabtreeIn speaking at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s first round of budget hearings, Gov. Phil Bredesen emphasized higher education as a top priority. He also spoke of his vision for transforming the University of Tennessee, Knoxville into a major, national research university.

This presents UT with both a challenge and an unprecedented opportunity.

As chancellor of the state’s flagship university in Knoxville, I believe that our administration, faculty, staff and students are ready to seize the many opportunities before us.

By numerous measures, we have come far in recent years. Yet, to serve the state fully, we must accelerate this positive momentum. While UT-Knoxville is the leading public research university in Tennessee, it has the potential to become one of the top public research universities in the entire nation and take its place alongside such institutions as the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. But this will require, among many things, a significant growth in our research capabilities, the commitment of faculty and students, private and government financial support and increases in the number of advanced degrees granted.

Is it worth it to have such high aspirations? I believe that the answer – for all Tennesseans – is yes.

Flagship research universities do many things for the states they serve. They drive economic development by providing the highly skilled workforce necessary in today’s complex global environment and they create many of the innovations and technological advances necessary to keep our economy competitive. Internet communications, cancer treatments, business logistical solutions, and key environmental discoveries rely more often than not on university-led research. In fact, it’s difficult to point to a ground-breaking discovery that isn’t tied in some manner to university students, faculty or labs.

Here at UT-Knoxville, we recently began a strategic planning process that will help us respond to the governor’s challenge to become a leading public research institution.

At the heart of our efforts is the urgent need to grow. Compared to other states’ flagship institutions, UT — with just over 27,000 students — is too small to help the state realize its full potential. Dubbed by some as the "33 for Tennessee" plan, these efforts seek to increase our enrollment of undergraduate and graduate students to 33,000. To keep pace, our vision for the future also calls for dramatically expanding our faculty and facilities.

Growth on this scale will create opportunities for the best and brightest students from our state and elsewhere to undertake and complete their academic pursuits at UT-Knoxville. It will also lead to a significant increase in the number of graduate students whose work in our laboratories, studios and classes enables Tennessee to achieve its full potential in a competitive and interconnected global economy. Ultimately, a larger student body also leads to an increase in our educated workforce, since students are much more likely to settle in the state where they attended college.

To grow only in size, however, would not be enough and would fall short of the challenge articulated by Gov. Bredesen. We must link this quantitative growth to a corresponding rise in quality.

In addition to relying upon appropriate facilities and a motivated staff, the quality of any research university depends directly on the teaching and research of its faculty. At UT, we’re fortunate to have many fine teachers/scholars in our ranks – but we need to increase faculty size and find the resources to recruit and retain the very best. This, in turn, will help us attract and keep outstanding students.

To allow our state to compete nationally and internationally, we intend to attract even more of the best and brightest faculty and students to Tennessee. The pressures and opportunities of globalization make it important that we develop students who are ready for the world that awaits them upon graduation.

In the coming weeks, we’re focusing on campus-wide strategic planning. We seek ways to grow our faculty, improve our facilities and provide more opportunities for our students. At the same time, we will focus equally on qualitative improvements and the responsible stewardship of state resources, private dollars and other university funds. Our roadmap will help us avoid unnecessarily burdening students and their parents while, at the same time, ensuring accessibility to all qualified students.

Our over-arching goal aligns perfectly with the governor’s vision for UT Knoxville: to create a top level public research university that serves the state in ways that matter to all Tennesseans – better jobs, wages, economic progress and a more secure future.

We welcome Governor Bredesen’s commitment to higher education. And we accept the challenge to grow and improve so that UT Knoxville can take its place among the country’s leading public research universities. All Tennesseans have a stake in our success.