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Searching For Leadership

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

It's hard to remember another month as crucial as this one to the future of education in Knox County and Tennessee as a whole.

Through a chain of coincidences, both the University of Tennessee and the local school system are choosing new leaders at the same time. The two institutions face somewhat similar challenges in the immediate future—making a case for more and better resources in a state and county that have been reluctant to give them. There are similarities in the results, too. For the first time in memory, both have gone outside the state for their job candidates. But the contrast between the two institutions and their searches is also instructive.

By the time this column appears, the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees will probably have a nominee for system president. The position is a widely misunderstood one, especially in Knoxville where the statewide UT administration co-exists with the flagship campus' own chancellor and vice-chancellors. Faculty here have long felt current President Joe Johnson has failed to define the lines between campus and system responsibilities, while dwelling too much on the high-profile athletic programs and not enough on academic excellence.

Clearly, what the University of Tennessee needs is a champion of education, someone who can translate enthusiasm for the Vols into enthusiasm for a top-flight higher education system. It needs to be someone who recognizes the value of a solid flagship campus to the state's identity and well-being, the need to emphasize Knoxville the way North Carolina emphasizes Chapel Hill and Michigan does Ann Arbor. An ideal president would be able to articulate and demonstrate the vital role of the state university system to legislators, business leaders, and especially the lay public.

Unfortunately, UT isn't likely to get an ideal president. The three candidates under consideration this week, while arguably qualified for the position, aren't the kind whose accomplishments leap off the page; only one, for example, currently heads a land-grant research university (the same candidate, George Emert of Utah State, is also the only one with an academic background—the lack of which has impaired the last several UT presidents in commanding respect from faculty and deans). Some faculty grumble that the search process, for all its advisory committees, was primarily guided by a handful of key members of the Board of Trustees. On the other hand, the budget-strapped system wasn't in much of a position to attract the best in the field.

"We're trying to recruit a captain for the Titanic," one faculty observer sighs. "It's very, very difficult to get the kind of folks we should be getting."

That leaves it to whoever gets the nod this week to prove himself capable of turning the listing ship around. First of all, he'll have to win the confidence of state leaders. But beyond that, he needs to generate broad support for making UT and the Knoxville campus in particular not only Tennessee's first and best school, but one of the best in the region. If that means increasing enrollment here, and many Trustees seem to feel it does, that growth should come only with an infusion of resources sufficient to provide upgraded facilities and better-paid faculty.

It won't be an easy sell, and it may have to start at home. The search process did not provide a clear picture of what the Board of Trustees envisions for UT. But the board needs to understand that a better university system can come only through banging the drum long and hard from one end of the state to the other. And the president will have to lead that parade, even if it means calling the Trustees into line. Whether it's in Andy Holt Tower, in the Legislative Plaza, or on a whistlestop tour of the state, an effective new leader will have to fight at every step the notion that UT is "good enough." It's not.

Meanwhile, the Knox County school board seems to be building a consensus on what it needs to do better. Board members shocked pretty much everybody on Monday by taking the bold and difficult step of dropping Interim Superintendent Roy Mullins from consideration in their superintendent search. That means the final choice will be among three outside candidates. Board members were careful to say the cut wasn't a criticism of Mullins, a capable, forthright administrator. But it clearly reflects a desire to bring new ideas and approaches into the county.

Among the things board members say they're looking for is someone who can rally the community behind the school system, something recent administrations have failed to do year after year. Knox County has a low property tax rate and a school system with a lot of needs—more and better-paid teachers, better maintenance, better technology. And surveys have shown Knox Countians are willing to pay more money to improve education. But school officials have typically been better at complaining about funding after the fact than marshaling grassroots and political support on the front end (as, for example, Sheriff Tim Hutchison does so adeptly).

Also key to the new superintendent's success will be a willingness and ability to talk about education in more than the standard vacuous soundbytes. Parents are better educated than they've ever been, and they are expecting more of schools than ever before—more choices, more programs, more attention to a variety of student needs. While Knox County has much to boast of (and as a result was able to attract a respectable pool of superintendent applicants), it has some work to do in urging and accepting community involvement in its schools. An educational leader should be able to engage the whole county in discussions about what kind of schools we want and need.

Educators like to fall back on the truism that "children are the future." What kind of future it is will depend in part on the choices made in the next few weeks.