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Five years and counting
by Greg Russell

Peter Scobey seems to be your typical modern-day college freshman. He has a page on Facebook.com, lives in on-campus housing and seems inseparable from his music.

  Peter Scobey

Freshman Peter Scobey

“I sometimes have problems getting to class on time,” says Scobey, shouldering a new load of responsibility as he makes his way into the world.

Scobey, though seemingly typical, is an important part of the University of Memphis’ grand plan to become one of America’s leading metropolitan research universities by its 100th anniversary in 2012. Bright, savvy and driven, Scobey is one of 408 freshmen — approximately 20 percent of the latest incoming class — to claim membership in the U of M’s prestigious Honors Program.

“Every major research university needs the best and brightest students, and that is who we are recruiting,” says U of M President Shirley Raines, who just entered her seventh year as University president. “All great universities have approximately 10 percent of their students in honors programs.”

The criteria in the program are high: incoming freshmen must graduate from high school with a minimum 3.5 grade point average and score at least a 27 on the ACT or 1,200 on the SAT. Of all students enrolled at the U of M, more than 1,300 students have done just that, putting the 10 percent goal well within reach by 2012.

Scobey, a computer and electrical engineering major who prepped at Memphis Christian Brothers High School, chose the U of M over other top universities after a personal phone call from a staff member of the Herff College of Engineering.

“She [Kathy Atkinson] personally called me up and set up a tour of the college,” says Scobey, who was awarded a prestigious National Merit Scholarship because of his academic prowess in high school. “She let me sit in on a class and allowed me to talk to some of the professors in the department. This gave me a feel for what I might get into.”

And just like that, Scobey — described as “extremely bright” by his peers — became a part of the U of M’s multi-faceted plan to move to a higher tier.

A look back
Before talking about our most recent successes and plan leading up to 2012, let’s take a brief look back at the history of the University. The facility opened Sept. 10, 1912, as West Tennessee State Normal School, an institution that trained primary and secondary education teachers. To this day, the U of M is still recognized as a leading producer of education professionals. In 1925 the school changed its name to West Tennessee State Teachers College. Upon expansion of the liberal arts curriculum in 1941, the name became Memphis State College.

On July 1, 1957, with a graduate school in place, the Memphis State University label was adopted. That name would last 37 years, when, on Feb. 7, 1994, Tennessee Senate Bill 1481 changed the school’s name to the University of Memphis.

Along the way, the U of M has enjoyed wide-range successes. The first African-American students gained admission in 1959. In 1962 the School of Law was established and in 1964, the Herff College of Engineering opened. The University recorded its only undefeated year in football in 1963, and in 1973, the men’s basketball team reached the NCAA championship game. In 1977, the College of Communication and Fine Arts was created. The school’s first chair of excellence, the Dr. W. Harry Feinstone Chair of Molecular Biology, was founded in 1984. The University again showed its commitment to offering top-notch educational facilities when it opened the McWherter Library in 1994. The Fogelman College of Business & Economics has been one of the country’s top-rated business schools for decades.

Those are successes well threaded in the U of M’s history. But what about our more recent successes? Lets turn to a robot, for starts.

Doctoral student Andrew Olney and researchers at the U of M’s FedEx Institute of Technology have developed software that enables a robot to hear, interpret and respond to individuals speaking to it, or asking it questions. For his work, Olney was awarded first place in the robotics competition at the prestigious Annual National Conference of Artificial Intelligence.

“We are now winning in those national arenas,” says Dr. Raines, in referring to Olney’s award.

Since 2001 the U of M has made enormous strides in distinguishing itself in a number of arenas. Among the many U of M accomplishments: the opening of the FedEx Institute of Technology; hosting two Nobel Laureates in Frederik Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela; the first ever University Truman Scholar, Jessica Swan; the opening of the Millington Center; an opera about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that was written by U of M professor John Baur; and the work of U of M archaeologists in Egypt are just a few of the many highlights. And as you read in our last issue, the U of M beat out several top southeastern universities when it was selected to house the Confucius Institute, which will cultivate better cultural and trade relations between the U.S. and China.

An eye toward 2012
“Our strategy is to invest in people, build productive partnerships and create interdisciplinary initiatives,” says Raines in referring to the University’s overall goal. “We must generate new resources, strengthen our community connections and enhance our image and reputation.”

The FedEx Institute of Technology alone has done much to help the U of M distinguish itself. Computationally intensive research teams are conducting work in biominformatics, cyber security and cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Scientists in biomedical engineering, biomaterials and nanotechnology are using resources through the Institute to further their work in tissue engineering, the creation of new medical devices and the development of biosensors for use in disease detection and treatment. Dr. Chuck Blaha, a professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ psychology department, recently made a breakthrough in the fight against Parkinson’s disease with the development of a device that aids in patients’ treatment.

The U of M will aggressively pursue an enrollment of 23,000 by 2012. A key component of reaching this goal is retaining existing students.

“We must make a great first impression on students,” Raines says. “We need to get students in, retain them and then graduate them.”

Raines points to several recent efforts aimed at enhancing students’ experiences at the U of M, including Freshman Convocation, the Learning Commons, Living Learning Communities and Fresh Connections.

Of current students enrolled, 6,412 are on scholarships.

For University employees, Raines says that in 2006-07, there was a 90 percent retention rate. Longevity tenure has increased from 25 to 30 years.

Raines says the U of M has a $1.5 billion impact on the local economy and that the University is continuing to take part in efforts to revitalize surrounding neighborhoods, focusing on the Highland corridor and Patterson to Highland area.

A vibrant Alumni Association is also an important part of the U of M’s plan. Now, nearly 4,000 alums are members of the association — membership is up almost 300 percent since 2003. Fred Thompson, who recently announced his run for presidency, is one of the many successful alums who are Lifetime Members of the association.

Not resting on its laurels, the U of M is moving forward with plans to enhance its educational and student-life facilities. A new University Center is underway and plans are being made for a new facility for the School of Nursing and Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology. The University also plans to acquire properties directly west of campus to create a new main entrance and to accommodate new facilities including a music center. The U of M is in the midst of enhancing existing classrooms by upgrading them with the latest in technological advances, transforming them into “smart classrooms.” The Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law will soon move downtown to the former U.S. Postal Service Customs House.

The University is serious about reaching its goal of becoming one of America’s leading research universities by 2012. Just think, our 100th anniversary in 2012 will be here by the time next year’s incoming freshman class become seniors.

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