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VOL. 127 | NO. 14 | Monday, January 23, 2012



100 Years of Higher Learning

School celebrates its past, present and future as centennial kicks off

By Bill Dries

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You can find the origins of the University of Memphis in the 19th century – the 19th Century Club, that is.

It’s because the idea for the institution took root more than 100 years ago among a group of women who were members of the service and philanthropy group that still exists today.

The 19th Century Club is a fitting place to start when looking at the storied history of the U of M, which is marking its centennial this year and which began as a “normal” college – or, a school for teachers – in 1912.

The university is also undertaking another transformation in the present to build on something it has quietly been in the act of becoming in recent years – a research center that crosses and connects the academic and business sectors.

“We’ve always been a place of momentum,” said university president Dr. Shirley Raines, in her 10th year as the university’s 11th leader. “We’ve claimed our identity as a research university. We were a research university, but people didn’t know about it.”

Momentum and identity are two themes U of M history department chairman Janann Sherman said she and associate history professor Beverly Bond found over and over in writing a centennial history of the university published this year.

“They really beat the bushes and raised the money to get it here,” Sherman said of the 19th Century Club members who pushed for one of the three teacher training schools the Tennessee legislature authorized at the beginning of the 20th century – one for each grand division of the state. At the time, teachers were only required to have a third grade education.

“The vision was much larger right from the beginning. That was one of the startling things to me,” Sherman said. “They were going to train a couple of hundred teachers. But they never saw it as just that. One of the points of raising the money was to broaden the mission. Each of the succeeding leaders found ways to broaden it.”

The 100th anniversary also comes with an eye toward fundraising, specifically a capital campaign with a goal of raising $250 million as an endowment by June 2013. The school already has $190 million in commitments toward the goal with some of the commitments spread across several years.

With the endowment, the university plans on significantly raising its rising profile as a research university on several levels. The network of alliances across business, academic, and public and private barriers is the cause that will define Raines tenure.

The physical embodiment of that goal is the FedEx Institute of Technology with its decidedly different metallic look and curved futuristic forms in the neighborhood of brick buildings with their conventional angles.

The building is home to the Systems Testing Excellence Program. It is the largest software testing organization in the nation. And its location in the center was part of a push by FedEx executives who saw gaps and holes in software development.

The institute also includes a super computer.

“The emphasis is really to help the researchers have the computing power to handle those large data sets and connect to other research institutes,” Raines said.

She has explored and forged new links among the university and other higher education institutions including the University of Tennessee Health Science Center as well as the city’s health care giants – such as Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – FedEx and the Memphis BioWorks Foundation.

Students walk near the Administration Building on the University of Memphis campus. The city’s eponymous institution of higher learning was founded in 1912 and is celebrating its centennial this year. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

As a result, the university’s identity has become more than a physical campus.

The most visible symbol of the movement was the move of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law from its place on the main campus along Central Avenue to the old U.S. Customs House Downtown on Front Street at Madison Avenue.

Less well known is the Memphis Speech and Hearing Center in the Medical Center that has been affiliated with the university since 1967. The clinic is also the university’s school of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

More changes have arrived at the U of M in the recent past. This month, Raines and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam raised the university flag on the campus of Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn.

It symbolized the private church affiliated school’s conversion to a University of Memphis campus – now known as the U of M Lambuth Campus – after several years of financial difficulties for Lambuth trustees.

Raines said the dual and even multiple roles are appropriate for a “metropolitan research university.”

Raines determined efforts at building the Memphis Research Consortium garnered $10 million in state funding with more to come in private funding.

“It takes longer to initiate something between 10 partners than it does between two,” she said. “But that’s what a city is all about. The university can then be one of those anchors in a city that pulls those entities together and makes more from an initial project. From the seed of an idea can grow many, many possibilities.”

The priorities of the centennial capital campaign include $22 million in endowed scholarships for undergraduates and another $40 million in endowed fellowships and assistantships for graduate students. There would be $46 million for endowed professorships and chairmanships of academic departments as well as $36 million for faculty development and research support.

The bricks-and-mortar priority list is topped by $40 million for a new music center followed by $20 million worth of new or expanded athletic facilities. A new $18 million nursing, audiology and speech language pathology building is also on the list.

What was once a move to push the borders of the campus north to Poplar Avenue is now a move to reorient the entrance to the campus to Highland Avenue to the west directly across from the proposed Highland Row commercial development.

“We’d like to have a large greenspace and be able to build a music center,” Raines said. “Had the economy not taken a downturn, I think we would have been further along in getting all of those things done. They continue to be viable for us.”

Higher education has its own fiscal pressure points with state and federal funding no longer tied exclusively to enrollment but instead factoring in college completion rates.

Enrollment at the U of M has increased every year for the last three years. Tuition and fees have also increased over that time.

And the balance between those increases and state funding is an issue Raines has made as tactfully but forcefully and persistently as she can.

“We hope that at some point in time, the state will recognize that it’s really important for us to come back to the table much more aggressively if we expect to have the kind of educated citizenry that we know both industry and society need.”

Sherman noted that when Cecil C. Humphreys was president of the university, he often reminded those asking about funding that “This is not a state-supported institution. This is a state-assisted institution.”

Humphreys saw a spike in student enrollment in the 1960s that taxed the 80-acre space that remains today the university’s hub and essence. Like Raines, Humphreys governed an urban university with a student body that commuted.

Sherman said the commuter identity is more the result of being in a large city than a function of the school’s identity.

“So many of the students who go here live in town and they don’t have to live on the campus,” Sherman said. “It’s a challenge for us to lure students to live on campus.”

It’s a challenge Raines is tackling with new student housing on campus that is linked to honors students. The residence halls are full and have waiting lists.

The university expanded its honors program to become the largest in the state with a bequest from Helen Hardin, already the benefactor of the Hardin Honors program.

The “emerging leaders” program has competition for slots in a scholarship program that requires those students to live on campus. And the school’s “Living Learning Complex” groups students in residence halls by their majors. There are cohorts or mentors for students who live on campus through their sophomore year.

“We don’t want to deny that we have a lot of commuters,” Raines said. “We do have a few more people living on campus. You see the thousands of apartments that are just off campus. We’ve worked really hard to engage those students who live just off campus. There’s an intentional outreach to the community as a whole and there’s an intentional community building on campus.”

The University Center’s western entrance with the new university center where the old one stood remains a gathering point for students. But the plaza entrance of the McWherter Library now shares the informal function.

Past, present and future students will probably always share stories about walking across the Southern Avenue railroad tracks or trying to beat the train to go north or south on campus by car or on foot.

The railroad, after all, was there before the university.

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