Volunteer. Leadership. Service.
Those three words were spoken many times on Friday as more than a thousand University of Tennessee, Knoxville, students walked across the commencement stage in Thompson-Boling Arena to receive their diplomas.
“UT has a storied history of leadership and service, and it is a legacy that you are now part of,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman, speaking at her first commencement ceremony since taking the helm of the campus in July. She told graduates being a Volunteer means “having the courage to step forward in kindness, to speak up for what is right” and lighting the way for others.
This fall, the university awarded 1,191 undergraduate degrees, 1,171 graduate degrees and certificates, and one law degree to students who completed their studies in the summer or fall. Five ROTC Army cadets were commissioned during the undergraduate ceremony.
Retired UT System administrator Theotis Robinson Jr., one of the first African American undergraduates to attend UT, was awarded an honorary doctorate in social work for his lifetime of work to advance social justice. UT alumnus and businessman Clayton M. Jones delivered the commencement address. Both men told graduates about their own leadership journeys and urged them to find a way to make a difference in the world.
Robinson became the first African American representative elected to the Knoxville City Council in more than a half century. Following his time in public office, he served UT in various roles, teaching a course in political science, working in the UT purchasing department, and finally acting as the special projects coordinator in the Office of Government Relations. In 2000, Robinson was named vice president of equity and diversity for the UT System and served in that role until he retired in 2014.
The UT Board of Trustees has awarded 20 honorary degrees to recognize individuals who have benefited the university or society through outstanding achievements or leadership. Past awardees include Howard H. Baker Jr. (2005), Dolly Parton (2009), Dale Dickey (2015), and Phil Bredesen (2017).
Robinson thanked his wife and family after receiving his honorary degree. He also paid tribute to heroes, big and small, who inspired him growing up including his parents, his fifth-grade teacher, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcom X.
Robinson finished his remarks encouraging graduates to embrace diversity and pave the way for others. He asked, “What will be the footsteps you will leave behind? What will be the shoulders that you will grow for others to stand upon?”
Jones focused on the Volunteer experience and what sets UT apart from other universities.
Jones served for 11 years as chairman and CEO of Rockwell Collins Inc., an aviation electronics and communications equipment company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Jones graduated from UT with a degree in political science and was named a Torchbearer, the university’s highest undergraduate honor. He served for eight years as a fighter pilot in the US Air Force, then began his 34-year career with Rockwell International.
In 2009, Jones and his wife, Debbie, established an endowment to support student initiatives in UT’s Center for Leadership and Service. The center was renamed the Clay and Debbie Jones Center for Leadership and Service in April 2019 in recognition of their support. This fall, five graduates each received the gold service medallion awarded by the JCLS for completing more than 225 hours each of community service during their time at UT.
Jones stressed that despite individual differences, all UT graduates share four common elements to the Volunteer experience: a sense of place, tradition, leadership, and service.
He paid homage to UT’s special traditions like Torch Night and Rocky Top as well as iconic spots across campus, proudly noting, “Every university has a place, but no one else has this place.”
Jones concluded his remarks with a question: “What is it that makes us unique? First, we are Volunteers. We are the only Volunteers,” he said.
Jones urged graduates to lead through service, defining success not as “title, wealth, and power,” but as acts of selflessness. “Helping others, caring for those less fortunate, giving back, and empowering teammates—that is what success should look like, and that is what Volunteers do.”
Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)