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Dressing For Failure

Dressing For Failure

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At a time when the question of uniforms in public schools is still generating a good deal of debate nationwide, it is something of an irony that the issue has been resolved, at least informally, at the University of Memphis Law School.

As we learn from this week's cover story by Mary Cashiola, both students and teachers at the law school have adopted the "layered" look -- but not because anybody has mandated it or because the style might be considered trendy somewhere else. They wear layered clothing at the law school because the building's temperature controls are so antiquated and unreliable that room temperatures fluctuate wildly and unpredictably, and one has to be ready to take off clothing or add it on at a moment's notice.

"It's hard to concentrate, and in law school you have to concentrate. We always say there must be a psychological experiment going on: 'How do law students behave under pressure and adverse temperatures?'" was one student's way of explaining it.

The problem is money, of course. The ongoing financial starvation being inflicted on the University of Memphis is nothing new. Even in boom times, the state never got around to supplying some of the facility's obvious needs. Almost uniquely among public institutions of its size and prominence, the University of Memphis has never had a major on-campus performance facility, either athletic or otherwise. It was slated to a couple of years ago, when private donors were already committed to supply matching funds in order to begin building the long-deferred performing arts center for which the administration of Governor Don Sundquist had budgeted money. The project came to naught, however, when the state came close to the brink of bankruptcy, a desperate edge it has never left since, mainly because the members of the General Assembly have refused to deal with the need for tax reform and have been content instead to pilfer reserve funds merely to keep an even keel.

But an even keel requires basic maintenance, and the state has not been able to afford even that for public institutions like the University of Memphis. Hence the layered look among students and the correspondingly disheveled state of physical facilities. And hence, too, the inability of the university to keep its salaries up to the level of competitive institutions elsewhere. Indeed, the University of Memphis is losing ground. In 1995, the university's faculty salaries had climbed to a level of 96 percent of the national average. Only five years later, they were down to 88 percent. The implications of that are shocking; the ongoing fact of what university president Shirley Raines calls "brain-drain" is even more so.

"Money For Nothing, Leaks For Free" is the title of Cashiola's article. Indeed. Politicians, like the ones who are even now debating in Nashville about whether to impose a one-cent sales tax (the most regressive kind, as we said last week) have seemingly given up on doing anything serious about the problem. Even that one-cent tax increase would yield only enough to keep the state going at the current level. It might or might not provide enough income to fix the leaks in the ceilings at the University of Memphis.

Tax reform -- enough of it to generate a dependable source of financing for the maintenance and upgrade of the state's public facilities -- is no longer a theoretical issue. Education, just to take one example of fiscal undernourishment, requires investment. Ignorance -- that hole in the ceiling of self-awareness -- is free. It is high time we covered ourselves.

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