Reliable funding that enables excellence while holding institutions accountable is the single-greatest challenge facing public higher education, University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro told a gathering of Nashville business leaders on Wednesday.
“We really started to address this challenge when our board met in June, and I suggested higher education’s current business model is unsustainable,” DiPietro said. “Since I took office in 2011, I’ve gotten in front of our legislature every year, and frequently, to tell them it’s a problem.
“It’s what keeps me up at night, so we’re rolling up our sleeves to seek a long-term solution that doesn’t require 4 to 6 to 8 percent tuition increases. We have to do everything we possibly can to ensure effectiveness, efficiency and entrepreneurial approaches to filling funding gaps, all while maintaining our excellence.”
DiPietro’s comments came during the Nashville Business Journal’s 2014 annual “Nashville Ahead” program. He joined three other higher education leaders for a panel program titled, “A Discussion on Higher Education and Workforce Readiness.”
More than 100 leaders in business, industry and government attended, and when asked what business could do to most help higher education, DiPietro had a two-part answer.
“First, be truth tellers. If we’re not producing the product you need, pick up the phone and let us know. We seek to produce the best-prepared graduates that we can, and we need your input to ensure that,” he said.
“Second, we have to commit to high standards for education in Tennessee. To say to Tennesseans, ‘We need to have standards’ is nothing new. Having and adhering to standards is critical to the important completion agenda behind Gov. Haslam’s ‘Drive to 55’ effort. It’s critical that students arrive at college well-prepared, and that’s what standards make happen. I encourage your support for high public education standards at all levels in Tennessee.”
UT campuses already actively partner with business to meet needs throughout Tennessee and beyond, according to DiPietro.
“Our campuses have consciously worked with employers to respond to the needs of the market,” he said. “Industry told us we need more engineers in Tennessee, so our UT Knoxville campus, for example, partnered with Eastman to grow STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education while also enhancing it, and the result is we’re producing more engineers whose education has them very well-prepared.
“The needs of the population and of healthcare providers we partner with to serve the population called for expanding our efforts to train doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists. As a result of that, our UT Health Science Center is working with Saint Thomas Health here in Nashville to greatly expand our presence in Middle Tennessee. At the same time, in West Tennessee, UT Martin is expanding capacity in rural communities like Parsons to produce more nurses.
“In Chattanooga, we have numerous ventures with Volkswagen that serve both that manufacturer and students at our UT Chattanooga campus very well, and Volkswagen is just one of many business partners UT Chattanooga is working with.”
DiPietro was joined by Western Governors University Tennessee Chancellor Kimberly Estep, Middle Tennessee State University President Sidney McPhee and Volunteer State Community College President Jerry Faulkner to discuss current trends in higher education to prepare students to be better-prepared employees.
DiPietro routinely meets with business, industry and economic development leaders through formal and informal events. Alumni and industry councils also help campus leaders keep in touch with the business world.
“The University of Tennessee leads our state in helping students complete their degrees, and we are becoming more entrepreneurial in the ways we partner and work with business and industry to provide a well-trained workforce that ultimately benefits all of Tennessee,” DiPietro said after the program.