DiPietro eyes UT changes to make money, cut expenses

In an interview with the News Sentinel, University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro has outlined some ideas for fixing what he calls a broken system for keeping the institution financially viable.

Expanding out-of-state enrollment, consolidating academic programs and charging businesses that benefit from university services are all on the table.

DiPietro first warned UT trustees in June the school could not sustain itself by continuing to pass cost increases on to students. He repeated that sentiment to Gov. Bill Haslam during a budget hearing in early December.

If the state does not invest any new money into higher education, UT officials estimate the system could face a $155 million funding gap over the next decade — if the university caps tuition increases at 3 percent and if the inflation rate remains at 3 percent.

Solving that problem is a top priority for DiPietro’s “second term,” as he likes to call it. After completing his first four-year contract and receiving a renewal from trustees, DiPietro said he’s thinking about his legacy and how he wants to leave the university.

During his first four years as president, DiPietro politely urged lawmakers to make funding higher education a top priority. He’s since accepted that given the state’s limited revenue streams and rising healthcare costs, getting more money from the state is unlikely.

…While the university continues to aggressively tackle the problem on its own, DiPietro said he isn’t giving up on help from the legislature. He’s already outlined priorities for this budget cycle, including a handful of new buildings and supporting the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s recommendation for fully funding colleges across the state.

Last month, DiPietro joined Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan and Higher Education Commission Executive Director Richard Rhoda in presenting a united front in favor of a $71.4 million requested increase in state funding for higher education, including $29.4 million for more need-based student financial aid and $25.7 million in operating increases for the universities, community colleges and colleges of applied technology.

If state funding at that level eventually wins legislative approval, the higher education leaders said tuition increases for the 2015-16 academic year could be held to zero to 4 percent — and for the bulk of students, on the lower end of that range.