In late 2000 President J. Wade Gilley announced that nine research centers of excellence would be created that were expected to spawn one thousand jobs and 10 to 20 new companies in Tennessee. He dubbed the undertaking the “Tennessee 21st Century Research Initiative.” Creation of the nine centers was the major focus of his effort to move UT into the ranks of the 25 top public research universities.
The new program was expected to generate $280 million and to be in place for a five-year period. UT received a special $30 million appropriation from the state with a promised additional $7.5 million in the next four years, with the remainder of the $60 million required to fund the centers coming from institutional reallocations and streamlining. Early in 2001, nine entities were designated as Research Centers of Excellence. The centers (also referred to as “large centers,” because a subsequent round of proposals for “small centers” was undertaken) were a result of a call for proposals issued by Gilley. Five of the designated centers were in Knoxville and four in Memphis. The centers were to receive $5 million to $10 million over a five-year period and to match that amount four to one with new, external research grants.
In 2002 Interim President Eli Fly announced that the centers had brought in $53 million in outside funding in their first year of operation, well ahead of the second year goal of $30 million. In their first two years, the centers created new jobs in Knoxville and Memphis, received more than 14 patent disclosures, and accumulated more than $222 million in grants and contracts. In July 2003 center directors were notified that, because of state budget constraints, the expected $7.5 million would not be allocated.