By Richard Locker, Commercial Appeal
January 19, 2010

NASHVILLE — Memphis lawmakers and University of Memphis president Shirley Raines on Tuesday proposed to Gov. Phil Bredesen a Memphis Research Consortium for inclusion in a higher education bill under debate in the state legislature.

The consortium would include the U of M, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, FedEx Corp. and six other hospitals and institutions. Bredesen was described as “receptive.”

Memphis officials proposed the consortium after the governor disappointed them by excluding from his higher education reform bill any mention of the U of M’s ambitions for increased research capabilities.

The reform bill did, however, devote two of its eight pages to increasing ties between the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus and the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The bill provides for UT faculty appointments for up to 200 lab researchers at a cost of $6million.

U of M supporters scrambled last week to circulate a “memorandum of understanding” among 10 Memphis institutions, hospitals and businesses, creating the Memphis Research Consortium.

It is described as a “collaborative venture focusing on research, medicine and health care, computational and computer science, engineering and learning technologies that promote long-term economic development and create jobs.”

Others in the consortium are Methodist Le Bonheur Health Care System, Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp., Memphis Bioworks Foundation, Smith & Nephew, Wright Medical Technology Inc. and Medtronic Sofamor Danek.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, and Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, on Tuesday joined Reps. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, and Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, in presenting to Bredesen the consortium idea as an amendment to the higher education reform bill.

“We have some language for the bill that I’m sponsoring that is acceptable to the governor’s office and to the Shelby delegation and I believe that we have a real commitment to go forward and do things — like the UTK and Oak Ridge thing — in Memphis,” Kyle said after the meeting in the governor’s office.

The overall thrust of the higher education bill is to increase college graduation rates in Tennessee.

Specifically, it directs the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to rewrite the higher education funding formula to place more emphasis on moving students toward graduation and less on sheer enrollment.

It also bolsters the state’s community college system, standardizes courses and makes it easier for students to attend their first years at the two-year schools and then transfer to four-year institutions.

After the meeting, Raines said the U of M “is very supportive of the higher education bill, very supportive of the Oak Ridge and UT” arrangement “and we have a research amendment that we hope will be put together for the University of Memphis. Receptive is the best word. We’ll see how it all works.”

Norris said it is too early to say whether the proposed Memphis agreement will clear the way for passage of the overall bill during a special legislative session this week, “but I’m optimistic that it will.”


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