University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Chancellor Donde Plowman earlier today delivered her second annual flagship address from the rotunda of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. In her prerecorded remarks, Plowman discussed her first year leading the university, recent successes and challenges, and the continued work of shaping a shared vision for the future. A live virtual discussion and question-and-answer session followed, moderated by Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement Tyvi Small.
At Plowman’s first Flagship Address a year ago, she made a promise that the university would be an institution of courage—one that would have the courage to take risks, the courage to care, and the courage to lead.
Four months later, that promise would be tested by a public health crisis.
‘Where We’ve Been’
Plowman reflected on the university’s response to COVID-19—moving 300,000 credit hours online with just a few days’ notice, shipping hundreds of laptops across the state and nation to students who needed them, and raising emergency funds for students in need thanks to generous support from alumni and friends of the university.
Faculty discovered new ways of teaching while students opened themselves up to new ways of learning.
“We have used our ingenuity, our resources, and our talents to deliver our very best for others,” she said.
Plowman acknowledged that while the campus strives to be a place where everyone matters and belongs, it has, at times, fallen short of that.
“We have work to do,” she said. “Administrators, faculty, staff, and students are learning and listening. We’re getting more comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. We are looking honestly at our systems, our own practices, our own processes, and asking, ‘What are we doing that advantages one group over another?’”
Plowman said she had sought out Black faculty members who left the university and asked what could UT have done differently. She noted that every college now has a diversity officer and every campus unit has a diversity action plan for recruiting and retaining faculty, staff, students of color and members of other underrepresented groups. The Africana Studies program is becoming an academic department.
“We cannot be afraid to examine and change our own ideas, our own actions, and our own behaviors,” she said.
‘Where We Are’
While the university has spent the past eight months grappling with issues of public health and racism, it has found ways to excel and innovate.
This fall, UT welcomed more than 7,100 first-year and transfer students—a record class—with a total enrollment that exceeded 30,000 for the first time in decades. More students than ever returned for their sophomore year, putting the retention rate at almost 89 percent, another record.
The university established a Division of Student Success and hired a new vice provost who immediately got to work coordinating these efforts across campus. Incoming students are now assigned a Vol Success Team that checks in with them regularly and helps them overcome obstacles.
Student athletes’ accomplishments in the classroom are at an all-time high, with an average GPA of 3.5 across all teams, and a new Commission for Disabilities was established to give light to the needs of students and employees with disabilities.
‘Where We’re Going’
With all the university has encountered in the last year, the work of the state’s flagship land-grant institution has continued.
“We’re investing in the future of Tennessee through our research, innovation, and community impact,” said Plowman.
Three new vice chancellors have joined Plowman’s leadership team—Deborah Crawford in research, Frank Cuevas in student life, and John Zomchick as senior vice chancellor and provost.
In December, Plowman will present a new strategic vision for the university that includes input from campus community members.
“For 226 years, UT has served the people of this state,” she said. “We will embrace our challenges with tenacity and our successes with humility. We will do these things because it’s what our world needs—people who are willing to serve, take risks, and to care.
“The world needs more Volunteers.”
Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, firstname.lastname@example.org)