When Dr. John Shumaker is “missing in action,” his staff has learned not to worry. The chances are that UT-s new president is out on campus somewhere, poking his head into people-s offices to say hello or chatting with students in the corridors. On a recent afternoon, he was located in McClung Tower, where he had gone to find the Classics department. Then he dropped in on Clarence Brown Theater managing director Tom Cervone.
“I looked up, and there was the president,” Cervone said. “He said he-d heard about the construction going on in the arts quad, and wanted to have a look at it. It turns out we-re both from Pittsburgh, so we talked about that.”
Then there was the student who was having trouble finding his financial aid check. He happened to meet Shumaker in a hallway and soon found himself in the president-s office, where the problem was solved with a few phone calls.
UT trustees say one of Shumaker’s many strengths is building relationships.
“Dr. Shumaker is doing a wonderful job of communicating with all UT’s stakeholders,” said Clayton McWhorter, a UT board member from Nashville. “His visits to all the campuses help to make them feel more a part of the whole system. He’s building a relationship with state
legislators and has been able to communicate the importance of higher education and its overall importance to our state. I give him high marks for a great start.”
Knoxville trustee Susan Richardson-Williams, calls Shumaker the ‘student’s president.
“I believed when Dr. Shumaker was hired that he would truly be the ‘student’s president’ and everything I’ve seen since his coming has reinforced that. The sight of him, in an orange T-shirt, welcoming students who were moving into the dorms, was confirmation of that. He’s accessible and interested in our students’ needs and understand that they are, after all, our number one constituents.”
Last Saturday, as freshmen moved into their dormitories, Shumaker was there in his T-shirt, ready to help. Along with lending a hand to help carry boxes into residence halls, he welcomed incoming students and their parents and answered questions.
“One of the great messages I’m getting is how efficiently and smoothly this process is working,” Shumaker said as he greeted students. “Parents and students are very grateful to the many community volunteers and our staff who are here really working hard and doing their very best to make sure students and new members of the UT family have a great experience on the first day.”
In a scant eight weeks in office, Shumaker has established some clear priorities. He wants to immerse himself in his new statewide community, and the timetable for this total immersion is “sooner, rather than later,” an expression he uses often. His schedule runs the gamut from back-to-back meetings with civic groups, student leaders, faculty members, and regional organizations to campus visits in Chattanooga, Memphis, Martin and Tullahoma. He-s traveled to meet with alumni and a myriad of other constituencies across Tennessee and hosted approximately 400 guests in the President’s home in Knoxville.
Even before his official first day, Shumaker traveled to Japan and China on behalf of the university as part of a trade delegation sponsored by Governor Don Sundquist-s office. He met privately with U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker to discuss the new Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, and with education officials in China to explore future joint programs.
Shumaker has also become a familiar figure in the halls of the state capitol. Before and during the government shutdown, he commuted between Knoxville and Nashville. Working closely with other education leaders, he convinced the governor that teaching was, indeed, an essential service. He also made a whirlwind tour of the state, calling on the editorial boards of major newspapers to emphasize the impact of the budget crisis on higher education.
In Knoxville, he moved quickly to reassure students, faculty and staff with frequent broadcast e-mails and a forum to address their concerns. He fielded questions on everything from graduation timetables for individual students to whether a researcher-s lab work should continue.
Now that the immediate crisis has passed, Shumaker is working to restore Tennesseans- confidence in their state university while continuing to address the need for funding.
Michael Combs, professor of music and president of the Faculty Senate, says he already sees Shumaker’s influence on the faculty.
“The best morale-booster we have on campus now is our new president,” said Combs. “No matter how bad things may seem, he’s able to inject a note of humor. At the forum he held just before the shutdown, he was able to get an angry group of people to actually laugh a few times.
“I’ve been very impressed by his availability and his willingness to accommodate my requests. And he is a president who gets out on campus. Recently, we ate lunch in the University Center with students and then walked over to the Austin Peay Building and just dropped in on faculty in their offices. The message he’s sending of being interested and willing to engage is exemplary.”
The UT president is calling attention to the university’s strong research partnerships with institutions like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and St. Jude-s Children-s Research Hospital in Memphis and points to exciting new developments like the appointment of Dr. Thom Dunning as a Distinguished Scientist and head of the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences.
“These partnerships are changing lives, in our state and in our nation,” Shumaker noted. “When we share our resources, everybody wins.”
He wants people to know that “the University of Tennessee is alive and well,” despite budgetary concerns. And he continues to hammer home the message that today-s students are our single most valuable resource.
“The students are the reason this university exists,” Shumaker said. “Every decision made in the legislature in Nashville affects the quality of life and the quality of education of our students. They deserve the very best the state can give them, because the economic future of the state depends on them.”
This new focus has been clear since Shumaker arrived, said Student Government Association President Elizabeth Clement.
“Dr. Shumaker knows why he-s here,” Clement said. “I think he-s going to do a wonderful job managing the whole UT system. I-ve worked with him a lot over the summer, during the budget crisis. He puts students first. He really makes us part of the process. We haven-t had that kind of involvement with a president for a long time.”