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While the journey to become a Top 25 university has already brought about great change, UT must address significant challenges ahead to reach the goal, Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek told the UT Board of Trustees on Friday.

It has been three years since UT received then-Governor Phil Bredesen’s challenge to become a Top 25 public research university. Since then, UT System President Joe DiPietro, the UT Board of Trustees, Governor Bill Haslam, and the legislature have supported the effort in many ways.

“We never said it was going to be easy. But we did say that we would pursue our goal with abandon,” Cheek told the board. See a video of his presentation to the board below.


US News and World Report ranked UT at forty-sixth among all public universities in 2013, the same position it held for 2012. UT has moved six positions since 2010.

Click to enlarge.

Cheek said many people ask why the metrics of the Top 25 initiative are not the same as US News uses to compile its rankings. A chart with all twelve metrics is pictured at right. 

“US News focuses solely on undergraduate education. Our goals for this university are broader and include research and graduate education which are core to making us a better university overall,” Cheek said. “They are also critical to the state’s economy, job growth, and are needed for a more educated workforce.”

Cheek said the emphasis in the first two years of implementation has been on improving undergraduate education.

“We’ve made the most progress in this area and the changes we’re making are significantly improving the experience for our students,” he explained.

UT’s graduation rate is now 63 percent and Cheek said he expects to improve that metric to 66 percent by next year. Retention—the percentage of freshman who return for their second year—has improved to 85 percent.

Several changes have contributed to the improvements. These include changing the drop policy to limit students’ ability to drop no more than four classes after the no-penalty deadline during their undergraduate years.

A significant amount of effort has been focused on eliminating bottlenecks students encounter when registering for high-demand, required courses. Twenty new lecturers were hired this fall to teach additional course sections, and new technology is being used to monitor registration in real time to help avoid overflows and improve classroom scheduling.

“We have added nineteen full-time advisors and have expanded our tutoring staff and locations. We’ve added a new tutoring location in Hess Hall and will soon add seven more tutors to the Student Success Center office in the Commons in Hodges Library,” Cheek said.

In June, the board approved a new 15-4 tuition model that will take effect for undergraduate students who enter next fall. The model requires students to pay for 15 credit hours each semester—the number they must take in order to graduate in four years—regardless of how many they take.

“We think it will be a game changer. It will give us more resources to reinvest in undergraduate programs, and it will give students a financial incentive to graduate in four years,” Cheek said.

The new UTracK system will pilot this spring and go live this fall. The system pairs students’ academic plans with registration to ensure they are taking the classes they need to keep them on track with earning a degree.

Graduate Education

Graduate enrollment is down across the nation, and UT is following that trend. The university lost some ground in the number of degrees awarded at the master’s and doctorate levels.

The graduate admissions process has been greatly improved, and $12 million has been committed over the next five years to expand the number of fellowships. Seventy-five new fellowships have been added in the last three years. New interdisciplinary doctorates and two new degree programs—a Doctor of Nursing Practice and a Doctor of Social Work—have been added to UT’s offerings.

“The only way to produce more degrees is to recruit more students,” Cheek said. “The best way to do that is to offer more competitive stipends to attract the best students.”


Cheek explained that research is “the core of what we do and what distinguishes us from all the other universities in the state.”

Both federal and total research expenditures have improved and many changes have made UT more competitive.

“As energy challenges for our nation continue to grow, we are working even more closely with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to find solutions. We have also expanded our relationship with Y-12 National Security Complex and it now involves every college on campus—from Communications to Vet Med to Architecture,” the chancellor said.

The Office of Research is working very closely with development to create new relationships and to broaden our existing partnerships. Several new centers have been created to foster collaboration and multi-disciplinary work, including the UT Humanities Center and the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. A new National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center called CURENT has been a great addition to the campus.

Nine of the ten UT/ORNL Governor’s Chairs have built their research enterprises at UT. Three new researchers have helped expand capabilities in nuclear safety, nuclear radiation, and environmental biotechnology.

Research is a primary consideration in our building plans and “core facility” plans, which help bring more large-scale technology and equipment to laboratories through cost-sharing arrangements.

Cheek emphasized the need to build and expand partnerships with agencies and corporations, such as TVA, ORNL, and Eastman Chemical.

“More corporate engagement is key to taking our research to market,” he said. “We have talented faculty and have only scratched the surface on how we can expand our research base.”

Faculty and Staff

The average faculty salary has improved through the last two years of raises.

“Being able to provide merit raises to our best performers has made a big difference,” Cheek noted.

The faculty-to-student ratio remains unchanged. More than $5 million has been raised to provide faculty awards to high-achieving professors. These funds help create the first two endowed chairs in social work and the first one in architecture.

A career path is now in place for lecturers who are critical to delivering core courses.

Cheek said that faculty and staff pay will continue to be a high priority, and a career path for full professors is on the horizon.

Infrastructure and Resources

Our per-student expenditure metric has improved and our endowment has increased, Cheek explained, but so have others schools, so the gap that measures us against our peer average has widened.

“Development is focused on more scholarships, fellowship, faculty funding, and what our colleges need to be Top 25 programs,” Cheek said.

The Campaign for Tennessee ended in 2011, UT experienced record fundraising in fiscal year 2012, and 2013 is projected to be even better. Engaging alumni in the campus and our goals is critical to the journey, he added.

Cheek said UT buildings should be those of a Top 25 university.

“Some are and some aren’t, but we are working on that,” he said. “We have opened several state-of-the-art buildings. And thanks to the Governor and the legislature, more buildings will be coming on line in the future.”

More than $20 million has been invested in deferred maintenance and to improve energy efficiency throughout campus.

A Final Note

Metrics are vital to tracking progress, but other great changes can’t be measured.

“But there are also changes you can’t summarize in a graph. There has been an incredible culture change all across our campus,” Cheek said. “Our campus community believes in our potential and departments across campus are all talking about how to make their program a Top 25 operation.”

C O N T A C T :

Karen Simsen (865-974-5186, Karen.simsen@tennessee.edu)