Public universities have a vital role in building resilient communities and healthy economies. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has historically embraced this role and is now recognized as an Innovation and Economic Prosperity (IEP) University. This designation acknowledges the exceptional ways in which UT cultivates community engagement, economic growth, and workforce development across the state of Tennessee and beyond.
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on toward 2021, the IEP designation both recognizes and advances UT’s ability to meet the rapidly evolving needs of our state and our nation.
Understanding the IEP designation
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) established the IEP Universities Program to identify and further equip institutions that drive economic and community engagement through public and private-sector partnerships.
“We have long known that UT Knoxville was a hub of workplace development, innovation, and public service,” said UT System President Randy Boyd. “This designation shows that other land-grant universities recognize the quality of work by our professors, staff, and students.”
To be considered for IEP designation, UT completed a multiyear comprehensive self-assessment to identify its existing strengths as well as areas for growth and improvement. A cross-functional task force gathered data and perspectives from faculty, staff, extension agents, and students as well as community, nonprofit, and business leaders. The findings from the assessment laid the foundation for a growth and improvement plan.
“We have achieved this recognition because Volunteers across every college and department understand the significance of economic and community engagement,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman. “It is an honor and an opportunity for us as we pursue the most impactful ways to serve the people of Tennessee.”
A match for UT’s mission
Service is a core aspect of UT’s Volunteer spirit, and it takes many forms.
“As the flagship land-grant university, community engagement, innovation, and economic engagement are in our DNA,” added Assistant Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement Javiette Samuel. “UT is an economic driver in the state as it relates to workforce development, community partners, and external stakeholders.”
Every college and division developed initiatives that helped earn the IEP designation, yet the combined breadth and depth of UT’s engagement often goes unseen.
“This designation ultimately helps us tell and measure our economic effects and public value,” Samuel said. “This is critical as we think about what it means to be a 21st-century land-grant university that seeks to solve complex issues through multidisciplinary approaches.”
Innovation and the economy
Through its research and discovery, UT has helped attract and bolster important industries in Tennessee.
“We know that innovation industries contribute in supersized ways to regional prosperity,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Deborah Crawford. “We already have a number of excellent programs designed to cultivate a culture of innovation.”
She points to the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm as an example. “There you’ll find our faculty, staff, and student researchers working alongside their corporate and other partners, translating new inventions into new products that will enrich the state’s economy.”
Earlier this year, UT announced a partnership with Volkswagen Group of America and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to build the vehicle manufacturer’s first innovation hub in North America at Cherokee Farm. That partnership is leveraging the expertise of ORNL scientists and several faculty members within the Tickle College of Engineering at UT to develop lighter vehicle components made from composite materials and to electrify vehicles—two areas in which UT is at the forefront of research and expertise.
The impact of UT’s innovations on the economy is no recent development. Jim Campbell, president of the East Tennessee Economic Council, points to the university’s long history in developing industrial ecosystems.
“Oak Ridge (ORNL) became the first major producer of radioactive isotopes for medicinal purposes. Then you needed new types of equipment to use them. Then you needed a trained workforce,” he said. “UT was a major player in helping the nuclear medicine industry transform health care over the last 75 years.”
In addition to helping build robust industries, the university also contributes to the economy through its workforce and purchasing power.
“There’s the direct effect of the university hiring people,” said Bill Fox, director of UT’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research. “Then there’s the indirect effect as the university buys supplies from companies that employ people. Then there’s a multiplier effect as people come from out of town to ball games and buy things, etc. The impact spreads through the community.”
A 2019 Boyd Center report found that UT generated nearly 43,000 jobs and $2 billion in income for Tennesseans in 2017. More importantly, this means the university has impacted lives.
“These are incomes, jobs, and tax revenues created as UT goes about doing the things we exist to do: training a successful workforce, innovating to move forward the economy, and increasing quality of life in a range of ways,” Fox said.
UT also provides numerous personal and professional development resources for students and community members. “These are designed,” Samuel said, “to encourage innovation and creativity, talent development and acquisition, supplier diversity, and a host of other opportunities.”
COVID-19, economic evolution—and IEP designation
Bolstered by its commitment to innovation, UT is poised to help Tennessee move forward from the disruptions and damage of the pandemic.
“The key right now in the nation’s economy is innovation,” Campbell said. “There are new challenges every day, as the pandemic has shown us. Industries are transforming. What UT does to prepare the workforce is a story of how it helps keep our state at the forefront of different industries.”
COVID-19 didn’t initiate these industry transformations. “We had already been changing how and what we buy,” Fox said. “The pandemic has accelerated this economic evolution at an unprecedented speed. At the end of this, many people won’t have their jobs—not because of how anyone has handled the pandemic, but because the economy and the kinds of jobs that are out there will have changed.”
“One of the challenges for UT and education in general,” he said, “is that we’re not used to evolutions being this fast. We as an institution need to evolve to help the workforce grow their skills and adapt successfully to this future economy.”
The IEP designation is an exciting launchpad for UT and its many industry and community partners to grow in the capacity to engage, innovate, and enhance lives—even in the wake of COVID-19. It has given UT access to a community of practice comprising other IEP universities. Together, they regularly discuss challenges and share insights grounded in innovation.
“The community of practice will help us all evolve at the pace needed,” Fox said. “We’ll see things they’re doing that we’re not. The leadership at UT will identify ways to bring that to Tennessee. We’ll also be doing things other universities aren’t. We will help them realize new opportunities in their areas, too.”
Heather Peters (865-974-8674, firstname.lastname@example.org)