By: Ann Brock
Tennesseans may remember Lamar Alexander wearing a red and black lumberjack shirt
as he trekked 1,000 miles across the state campaigning for governor. And they may
fondly recall his playing the piano on Patti Page’s re-recording of “Tennessee Waltz.”
But a mention of Alexander’s name to Tennessee educators will likely conjure up remembrance
of what he did for the state’s public education system, particularly his Better Schools
program introduced in 1983.
The program was designed to offer merit pay to public school teachers and principals,
centralize administrative authority for vocational-technical programs and establish
centers of excellence at major universities. The legislature passed the program in
When the state put out the call for proposals, the U of M’s Department of Psychology
snatched up the opportunity. The department applied for and was awarded $600,000 to
establish the Center for Applied Psychological Research (CAPR). It was the high octane
needed to make it one of the strongest psychology departments in the nation.
Immediately, CAPR funds were used to add three high profile researchers to the faculty.
Two junior faculty members with strong research potential were also hired. More researchers
meant more funded grants, frequent publications and greater attendance at conferences,
all of which resulted in national and international recognition for the department.
A year after receiving the original grant, the department’s proposal for an expansion
was approved, and funding was bumped up to $1 million per year. The Center was subsequently
selected as one of the five most outstanding centers of excellence in Tennessee, which
meant an extra one-time award of $56,000. In 1988 the Center was designated as an
accomplished center of excellence.
Dr. Andy Meyers, vice provost of research and a psychology professor, said that CAPR
funding brought a cultural change to the department.
“The funding added an enthusiasm that wasn’t there before, because you struggle along
never feeling adequately supported and then all of a sudden, certainly for the first
five or six years, I think we felt wonderfully supported. And really while that money
has never grown with inflation over the years, it still serves an amazingly valuable
With the new momentum, the psychology department continued to attract outstanding
faculty and students. Grant-funded projects abounded, and a health research center
and an intelligent systems research center were spawned. Computer labs were set up
for students, the post-doctoral program developed, the graduate program expanded and
the honors program was established, all with CAPR funding.
The Center far exceeded proposed goals and benchmarks. Dr. Will Shadish, a former
faculty member who took the lead in writing the grant proposal, says that the department
became firmly research oriented.
“CAPR funds helped to make the department a very attractive place to be. The atmosphere
the Center created of excitement and a valuing of research endeavors cannot be overestimated.”
One of the results of the revved up research efforts was the establishment of the
Institute for Intelligent Systems (IIS). During the last decade, IIS has received
more than $30 million in external funding and has contributed significantly to cognitive
psychology by designing, developing and testing cutting-edge computer software that
integrates cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, discourse processes, education
and computational linguistics. The unit has developed a computerized tutoring system
that holds conversations with students, a system that trains students how to read
science texts at deep levels of comprehension, a system that helps students learn
by modeling good questioning and answering, and a learning system on research ethics.
IIS is interdisciplinary in that members work with other researchers in computer science,
engineering, education, physics and English.
Another entity started with CAPR funds was the Prevention Center, now the Center for
Community Health. Faculty members work with health researchers on campus to conduct
research on topics such as stress, smoking cessation, drug addiction and childhood
Dr. Guy Mittleman, current director of CAPR, says that while the biggest single benefit
of CAPR has been the facilitation of research, he would like to see the department
be even more aggressive in research endeavors. “One direct way CAPR money could be
beneficial is to fund pilot studies with the guarantee on the part of the researcher
that he or she would then have to apply for a grant. Pilot studies are essentially
the impetus that leads to larger research studies.”
Dr. William Zachry, interim chair of the department, sees the advantages of CAPR in
applied and altruistic ways. “We are producing not only students who go out to benefit
the community in so many ways, but also we’re producing good, basic research that
is applied to the reallife problems of people. We are an applied psychological center.
We’re not just doing research that gets printed in a journal and is never seen again.
The research is on problems that people have in the workplace, in their personal lives,
with addictions and medical disease and with consequences of trauma from abuse, grief
The department’s areas of specialization are clinical health psychology, child and
family studies, cognitive psychology, industrial organizational psychology, psychotherapy
research and behavioral neuroscience. CAPR faculty has expended more than $70 million
in extramural funding during the last 25 years. Last year, despite the dramatic downturn
in federal funding, faculty were awarded $35 million in grants and contracts. For
every $1 invested by the state, faculty brought in $3.5.
Research projects have included: gambling addiction, autism, Parkinson’s Disease,
smoking cessation, weight loss, sleep disorders and drug addiction.