U of M Faces Challenging End of Year

By Bill Dries

It is proving to be a restless fall at the University of Memphis as interim President Brad Martin pulls into focus several short-term goals that will have a long-term impact on the future of the city’s largest institution of higher learning.

Martin has said his goal is to grow a campus whose enrollment has dropped in recent years as its completion rate, the gauge by which state funding is determined, is about 10 percentage points below the national average. And an increase in tuition could have an impact on both of those goals.

University of Memphis students cross campus.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“We are operating with a great deal of intensity,” Martin said last month as he spoke at the Memphis Rotary Club. “The world in which the University of Memphis operates today is highly, highly competitive. … Our financial viability at the university really relies upon our ability to attract students. We get paid based on tuition – that’s the biggest revenue source – and the number of students that we serve who graduate.”

But the Tennessee Board of Regents, which governs the system of state schools that included the university, is considering a tuition increase for the coming year.

Martin reacted quickly to word of the tuition hike with a press release saying the school will hold tuition flat for the 2014-2015 academic year.

“Effective allocation of available resources and improved efficiencies at the university will permit this to occur while we focus on serving more students and improving graduation rates,” Martin said Nov. 19 in a written statement.

A tuition increase, however, is set by the Regents and Martin conceded that saying he hoped they would not increase tuition.

Regents Chancellor John Morgan and University of Tennessee President Joseph DiPietro said this month that the two systems are each likely to see tuition increases for the next academic year but that they expect the increases to be lower – at 4 percent or less. But that estimate comes with the administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam agreeing to spend $41 million more on higher education in that academic year.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which oversees both systems, is recommending a 2- to 4-percent tuition increase combined with the $41 million in new state spending, with $30 million of the new state spending for operations.

The University of Memphis has 21,000 students enrolled as of this fall, fewer than the school had in 2009. Martin has set a target of 2,000 more students over several years.

Tuition at the university has increased every year for each of the last 22 years. For the last decade, that has averaged out to a 7.3 percent increase a year.

The 6 percent increase for the current academic year brought the tuition per semester for in-state undergraduates taking a full course load to $4,151. It comes to $11,507 per semester for out-of-state undergraduates.

In-state graduate students pay $5,242 per semester with out-of-state graduate students paying $11,452.

Meanwhile, the long-delayed Highland Row development that developers and the university hoped to begin work on this fall suffered another serious setback this month.

In July, the university formally asked the Tennessee Building Commission to approve its alliance with Collegiate Housing Foundation to help with the financing of Highland Row, the $65 million project announced just before the national recession hit and stalled since then.

The university plans to have students housing on the upper stories of the multiuse structure with retail on the ground floor. Highland Row is also a key part of the university’s long-term plan to push the borders and entrance of the campus westward to Highland Avenue.

Morgan requested the legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper.

And Cooper’s office concluded “neither the TBR nor the university has statutory authority to execute the agreement.”

“Furthermore the Tennessee State Building Commission would have to approve any such agreement,” continues the legal opinion released Nov. 20 by Cooper’s office.

The legal opinion holds that those kind of obligations are not even implied in state statutes that give “limited authority” for the Regents and the university on its own “to purchase and convey property and erect buildings.”

“The agreement in various respects goes beyond these limited statutory authorizations by obligating the university to collaborate in several ways with the LLC and its sole membership nonprofit corporation to acquire property and erect a building on that property to be used in part for university housing.”