As state universities continue to deal with budget constraints and low graduation rates, the need for growth to accommodate the demand for varying academic programs is essential to the future of higher education in Tennessee, according to Middle Tennessee State University President Dr. Sidney A. McPhee.
The “explosive” demand for programs, McPhee said, has never been more real, especially as the state emerges from the recession, and it’s something that the educational system is experiencing from K-12 to higher education, including local schools like East Tennessee State University and Northeast State Community College.
“It needs a very strong educational system to provide the kind of work force that will attract industry for the 21st century and that is what MTSU is all about, and I think that’s what all the other state universities are trying to do,” McPhee said.
McPhee and other MTSU officials were in Johnson City on Monday for an open house for prospective students.
One of the biggest issues state universities are facing is the need for new facilities, but tight budgets have kept many of these projects from ever moving forward.
“The list, the needs, whether it’s MTSU, UT-Knoxville or ETSU or Walters State or Northeast State Community College, we all are really struggling to provide the kind of facility in light of these budget reductions, whether it’s new capital outlay or capital maintenance,” McPhee said.
McPhee has been MTSU’s president for 11 years, eight of which have seen cuts to the budget. He said MTSU, which is the state’s largest undergraduate university, has been trying to lay the groundwork for a new science building for about 13 years.
The Complete College Act of 2010, a comprehensive reform agenda that aims to shift the focus from statewide college enrollment to improved graduation rates, is forcing officials with the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Board of Regents to look at existing capital outlay priorities that align with its requirements and goals.
“Clearly, it’s connected in that sense because if you’re going to produce more graduates for the state, you have to have the facilities to accommodate those new students,” McPhee said.
McPhee is hopeful recent discussion between Gov. Bill Haslam, the state legislature, UT and the TBR about a major capital bond of about $1 billion will help state universities like MTSU, ETSU and UT-Knoxville begin to progress in terms of projects needed to help meet the demands of higher education.
Additionally, McPhee said one of the most important things that can be done is to ensure the state’s higher education system continue to work alongside K-12 education in order to keep students as priority one, especially when dealing with the CCA and programs like Race to the Top.
“We all need to work together — within higher education, higher education with K-12, higher education with the legislature — and then at the same time, we need to find ways to get students to understand the importance of education in this state if we’re going to reach those goals of producing more graduates for the state,” he said.