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.
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