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More than 4,000 UT students, faculty, staff and alumni broke the Guinness World Record for the world's largest human letter, as part of the Today show's Rokerthon 3 on Wednesday, March 29, at Neyland Stadium.

It’s been a big year for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

UT’s news made headlines around the region, nation, and world, and the campus saw a time of great transformation. We’ve rounded up a blend of the year’s most important, talked-about, and headline-grabbing stories.

The Pride of the Southland Band prepares to march in the inauguration parade for President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.
The Pride of the Southland Band prepares to march in the inauguration parade for President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.

In January, as the nation turned its attention to President Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington, the Pride of the Southland Band continued an honored tradition—representing the state of Tennessee in the presidential inaugural parade. It was the band’s 58th inaugural parade. Several media outlets made note of their performance, including People magazine.

At the start of the fall semester, a story about the first female leaders in the band’s 148-year history was among the top-performing articles on the Tennessee Today website. Junior Rebecca Percy of Trussville, Alabama, is the drum major—only the third woman to hold the position. Senior Laiton Pigg is starting her second year as assistant drum major.

Chancellor Beverly Davenport addresses the media on her first day on campus.
Chancellor Beverly Davenport addresses the media on her first day on campus.

In February, the campus welcomed its eighth chancellor, Beverly Davenport, who was invested in a special ceremony in October. The campus has seen numerous changes in the months since her arrival, including a new wave of leaders: vice chancellor for communications, Title IX coordinator, vice chancellor for development and alumni affairs, and interim vice chancellor for research. The hiring of John Currie as athletic director in April and the naming of Phillip Fulmer as acting AD and Jeremy Pruitt as UT’s football coach, both in December, were among the most discussed and written-about UT stories this year.

In September, Currie and Davenport announced a commitment to restoring visibility of the Lady Vols brand, a move that was lauded by the community.

“The Lady Vol name, logo, and brand will continue to stand prominently as marks of excellence in intercollegiate athletics,” Davenport said in a press conference announcing the shift.

Also that month, the campus launched the most ambitious fundraising campaign in its history. The goal of Join the Journey is to raise $1.1 billion to support five key priorities—undergraduate scholarships; graduate fellowships; faculty awards, professorships, and chairs; college and unit priorities; and comprehensive athletic excellence. The campaign already has brought in more than $800 million that will shape UT for generations to come.

The potential outsourcing of facilities management functions also was of great importance to our community. Davenport announced her decision to opt out of the proposal at the October meeting of the Board of Trustees.

The year was punctuated by two once-in-a-lifetime moments:

On March 29, nearly 5,000 Vols gathered at Neyland Stadium in the early morning hours to assemble the world’s largest human letter live on the Today show as part of Al Roker’s week-long trek to five universities to break world records. Guinness World Record officials were of hand to verify the effort as record breaking, and everyone standing in the T that day will remember the excitement and feeling of community that filled the stadium.

The August 21 solar eclipse focused the spotlight on some of UT’s faculty experts, whose comments appeared in hundreds of media articles. And when the eclipse peaked over Knoxville around 2:30 p.m. that day, thousands of students, faculty, and staff gathered on the Ayres Hall lawn, eating Moon Pies and donning special glasses while the day became dark as twilight and the cicadas began to chirp. View photos from the event.

Three noteworthy names made big news this year as well:

The spring edition of Torchbearer included an article describing a unique course at UT that analyzes popular culture as a historical source by using the life of singer-songwriter Dolly Parton. When the university’s Twitter account shared the story, Parton herself retweeted it and said, “From the girl voted in High School ‘least likely to succeed’ this sure is a blessing!”

The mention resulted in numerous media stories on National Public Radio and in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and New York Magazine among others.

“I was very honored,” Parton said of the course in the New York Times piece. “I’ve been around a long time, and people feel like they know me. I’m like a favorite old aunt or an older sister or a grandma, in my case. But I think it’s wonderful that people have taken pride in the fact that I’m a local East Tennessee girl.”

Grandin answered questions from the audience after her presentation.
Temple Grandin answers questions from the audience after her presentation.

Autism and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin’s October visit was a surprise hit for UT. Second only to changes in athletic leadership in online audience on Tennessee Today, Grandin’s Ken and Blaire Mossman Distinguished Lecture in Cox Auditorium drew such a large crowd that two overflow rooms were quickly filled.

Grandin is one of the most accomplished and best-known adults with autism in the world. During her presentation, she discussed how people with different kinds of minds—from visual thinkers like artists to pattern thinkers like mathematicians to wordsmiths—can work together to accomplish impactful things.

A student well known to the campus community, Payton Miller, crossed the Thompson-Boling Arena stage in May to receive a degree in biochemistry through the Chancellor’s Honors Program. Miller spent more than 300 hours of her time at UT painting iconic images on the Rock. A story and video about her, timed for spring commencement, drew record web traffic and resulted in outside media coverage. Later in the year, she painted a mural, which was unveiled at a special celebration, for the newly opened Veterans Resource Center in Hodges Library.

The campus was also abuzz when Stokely Residence Hall opened in January and Strong Hall opened in May.

From left, Alex Bentley, head of the Department of Anthropology; Charles Feigerle, head of the Department of Chemistry; Chris Boake, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences; Randy Brewton, faculty member in biological sciences, Theresa Lee, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Chancellor Beverly Davenport; Larry McKay, faculty member in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; UT President Joe DiPietro; and Martin Walker, doctoral student in anthropology cut ribbons during the opening ceremony for Strong Hall on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017.
From left, Alex Bentley, head of the Department of Anthropology; Charles Feigerle, head of the Department of Chemistry; Chris Boake, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences; Randy Brewton, faculty member in biological sciences, Theresa Lee, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Chancellor Beverly Davenport; Larry McKay, faculty member in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; UT President Joe DiPietro; and Martin Walker, doctoral student in anthropology cut ribbons during the opening ceremony for Strong Hall on September 8.

Named for the Stokely family and honoring their more than 100-year commitment to UT, Stokely Hall houses more than 600 students and includes the Fresh Food Company, a POD Market, and a Starbucks WPS. Strong Hall, a state-of-the-art classroom and laboratory building, houses the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, Anthropology, and Earth and Planetary Sciences. The building, which encourages collaborative learning and features cutting-edge technology, is changing how faculty design courses.

Offbeat research at UT also grabbed the nation’s interest.

One study by Psychology Professor Vladimir Dinets showed how groups of Cuban boas coordinated their positions to maximize the pack’s chances of catching passing bats flying into caves. The subject tapped into the widespread fear of and fascination with snakes and was covered in many major news outlets, including CNN, Time, Mashable, the Daily Mail, CBS News, Gizmodo, Atlas Obscura, Popular Science, National Geographic, and many more.

Also in psychology, a study exploring why some young adults cheat on their partners suggests that the behavior may be a way through which millennials deal with their transition to adulthood.

Jerika Norona, a doctoral student in psychology, is the study’s lead author. Co-authors are Spencer Olmstead, associate professor of child and family studies, and Deborah Welsh, head of the Department of Psychology.

The research has been featured in Popsugar, Allure, MSN, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, Vice, and Brit + Co, among other media outlets.

Chris Cherry, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and a researcher in UT’s Center for Transportation Research, published a study involving safety issues where bike paths cross railroad lines—specifically crossings on Neyland Drive.

That work quickly gained attention and has since spread around the world. It was covered by France’s Le Monde, AOL in the United Kingdom, and the Australian website Pickle.

Huffington Post ran a story and the video on its Facebook page, where it has garnered more than 550,000 views. Cherry’s supercut of cyclists crashing on Neyland Drive has been watched on YouTube more than 270,000 times. The story has also been featured on WBIR, the News Sentinel, the Raleigh News and Observer, Citylab, Jalopnik, and bicycling magazines Bike Radar and Road.