Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Making The Grade For University Of Memphis

There’s a certain level of angst that surfaces this time each year because the football team at University of Memphis isn’t in the top 100 in pre-season rankings.

As University of Memphis graduates, all of us here do care about the fortunes of our sports teams, but that’s not the ranking that really got our attention lately.

Instead, it was the ranking of the top 500 universities in the world. University of Memphis didn’t make the cut.


All of us who care about the future of our city should also care about the future of U of M, no matter what their alma maters. As we look for strategies to expand and improve our economy, it’s imperative that we make it a priority to move Memphis’ higher education anchor up that list – or at least the list of the top U.S. universities.

After all, if other public universities can make the list – including University of Tennessee at Knoxville and University of Alabama at Birmingham, both in the top 200 of the world’s best universities; University of Arkansas, in the top 400, and Mississippi State University, in the top 500 – is there any reason that we should assume that University of Memphis can’t make it?

By the way, at a time when some commentators question America’s ability to produce students to compete in the global economy, it’s worth noting that of the top 20 universities in the world, 18 are in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, Harvard University is #1, and the highest ranked public university is University of California – Berkeley at #3.

Predicting Success

In his presentation to Leadership Memphis’ community breakfast last year, our colleague, Portland economist Joe Cortright, said that the single greatest predictor of success for cities today is its percentage of college-educated talent.

That’s because there is a direct line between high educational attainment and high per capita income and jobs growth. However, of the 50 largest U.S. metros, Memphis is 44th in the percentage of 18-24 year-olds in college. It’s no surprise that we are also 45th in per capita income.

As Mr. Cortright pointed out, if Memphis can just move to the median of the top 50 metros, it would create $3 billion in new economic activity. And that’s just to get to average.

It’s Talent, Stupid

That’s why we have said that ultimately, Memphis City Schools is in the talent business, and success is defined as increasing the pipeline of students prepared to attend and graduate from colleges and universities.

It’s likely that the multi-faceted plans of new Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash will produce significant results in the next 12 months, and hopefully, in the end, progress won’t be defined simply by improved teaching to the test but in stimulating an appetite for learning that will inspire more students to enter college.

As for higher education in Tennessee, it’s tragic that the state’s “tobacco money” was used for one-time expenditures rather than to create the kind of endowment for university research that has driven innovation in other more visionary states. It’s equally tragic that at the precise time that State of Tennessee should be increasing its funding for our university, it’s doing just the opposite, forcing some painful decisions upon President Shirley Raines.

There’s Always Hope

Short of more money, there are hopeful signs in Nashville that Governor Phil Bredesen may give University of Memphis something that it’s long sought – independence from the Tennessee Board of Regents. We recognize the difficulty of the political calculus facing the governor, because other universities, such as Middle Tennessee University, might ask for similar treatment.

And yet, this autonomy is crucial to the University of Memphis’ ability to chart its own course, set priorities that align with its greatest impact on our economy and establish and pursue its own unique vision free of the Board of Regents’ balancing act to keep all of its members happy.

Best of all, freed from the Regents’ control, the university would find businesses more likely to contribute to high-impact programs. To that end, there is some consideration on Capitol Hill to challenging university backers to raise the most money in U of M’s history to prove that we are willing to put our money where our mouth is.

Next: Advice From An Urban University President


Harvey said...

What is Mr. Cortwright's definition of success?

Anonymous said...

We can have our own Board of Regents. We can pour gobs of money to the University. However, it will never be more than a mediocre University without a wholesale change in academic leadership.

Since Shirley Raines was hired, she has ceded most of her power to the entrenched bureacracy of the University.

Most people are not aware how political and how conservative and status quo oriented the academic leadership really is at the U of M. I worked there in a staff positon in which I could observe this first hand for 13 years.

When I first got there, Dr. R. Eugene Smith, VP over Business and Finance was the kingpin with strong political connections to the Farris family and others. When he left, Ralph Faudree took over as provost and quickly consolidated his power, taking over not just the academic depts but many support functions as well to the point where he is internally untouchable.

Faudree is a great mathematician but a mediocre administrator, keeping to antiquated academic traditions and an inability to think out of the box. The only innovations that have come have been from corporate interests outside such as the Fedex Center.

In athletics, things started to bloom when the key players turned over. the AD hired better coaches from outside and we have become nationally known in basketball and regionally in football. The same needs to be done in adademics to make our University a truly great urban institution.

George said...

My Goodness, you are a vile individual, Anonymous 4:40. Besides that there is no relationship between athletic prowess and academic success. I would point to Harvard a perrenial cellar dweller and University of Chigcago with no athletic program.

George said...

Excuse me, I meant to say U of Chicago has no football program

George said...

Excuse me, I meant to say U of Chicago has no football program

George said...

Having recently returned to UM, after about two decades away, I am quite pleased with what I have found. Dr. Raines and Dr. Faudree are both significant improvements over the leadership of the past. The UM has improved significantly in any number of areas. In fact the only thing that hasn't changed is good basketball, I was here for the previous run for the championship. There are many successes there. Unfortunately, like many institutions of higher education they tend to be the sorts of things that most folks don't stand up and cheer for. However, there has been faculty involvement in the recent Mars landing, a significant contribution to the treatment of Parkinsons, and many other successes. Look where the faculty are coming from and you will see they are from the top universities in the country. Personally, I am pleased to be back at UM and look forward to seeing the institution grow and prosper making contributions to Memphis and the region.

Smart City Consulting said...


Mr. Cortright's definition of success is a city that is competitive in the global economy. In other words, it about creating a workforce that is educated and a magnet for new jobs.

Smart City Consulting said...

We apologize if you read the childish, obscene comment that was posted in response to this post. More to the point, it was completely irrelevant to the post, just something that sounded like the rantings of a high school who's learn to curse.

Harvey said...

Smart City:

No problem with the vile comments. For a second, I thought we were on another local blog, but other than that, you take the good with the bad.

Another question: Does Smart City's definition of success for Memphis include above all us being competitive in the global economy? Are there other aspects you would include in your definition or is that what you are shooting for in your hopes for our city?

Smart City Consulting said...


Our definition of success hinges on talent, and here, that is defined by us as capitalizing on our bulge in school age children by getting more of them to high school graduation and into college. Also, success hinges on identifying and executing a "leap frog strategy" that moves us ahead of our competitive rivals rather than the incremental approaches taken now that keep us in the same relative place.

Smart City Consulting said...


To your first question, we would suspect that Mr. Cortright would say that the dimensions of a successful city are talent, connectivity, distinctiveness, and innovation.

Julie said...

where are there hopeful signs that bredesen is starting to lean toward giving memphis its own board?

and is that really his call?

believe me, i'd love it if it were, because i have no faith in shirley raines to push for it herself. she is a UT alum and an employee of the board of regents, after all, but i was just curious as to what gave you indications that it was a little closer to happening?