It took less than 10 minutes for a new undergraduate course at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, taught by Chancellor Donde Plowman and former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, to fill up with 60 students.
Titled Leading with Courage, the class was the first to be offered through the university’s new Institute of American Civics and was part of the University Honors curriculum. It examined how Tennesseans from across generations, industries and communities found the courage to be bold and decisive leaders.
The idea for the class came from the former governor, who is also a member of the institute’s board of fellows. Haslam approached Plowman with the idea of co-teaching the class.
“I’m a fan of the chancellor’s, and I was thinking how fun it’d be to do something with her,” Haslam said. “One of the things we hope is that people leave this class with this idea that leaders are called to actually solve problems. And that takes courage.”
Each week the lessons centered on themes related to leadership such as speaking truth to power, owning failures, values and ethics, trusting others and leading in turbulent times.
“Something I’m interested in is How do people find courage?” Plowman said. “So the idea of exploring that with someone who has been a leader who showed a lot of courage seemed like a great opportunity.”
Throughout the class, the governor and chancellor shared personal experiences and lessons they had learned, including how they made hard decisions, built trust and navigated change. Students also considered leaders throughout Tennessee history — some famous and some less so — and heard from guest speakers including former U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, bestselling author and historian Jon Meacham and UT’s first Black undergraduate student, Theotis Robinson.
“I’ve learned from every guest speaker. I heard Lamar Alexander tell the story of deciding to be sworn in early — in his voice, his words,” said Plowman, referring to Alexander’s first term as governor in 1979, which came amid a political scandal involving his predecessor. “The students heard that; it was an amazing moment.”
KJ Malone of Memphis, a junior in the Haslam Scholars Program, said it was the challenge he was looking for.
“My first impression of the course was that I was going to be hearing a lot of difficult topics, and I was going to have to listen to opinions that I don’t share,” Malone said. “There would be passionate topics, divisive topics, and that was something that interested me.”
Despite the hot-button topics, Tyler Myers, a sophomore in the Haslam Scholars Program from Brentwood, Tennessee, said the class generated productive conversations, learning from the past to prepare for the future.
“Leading with courage means that you’re just simply willing to do things that a lot of people aren’t willing to do,” Myers said. “I am willing and able to sit in these different conversations and take part in a variety of classes where I’m getting a lot of differing thoughts and ideologies. So now if I confront a situation where I need courage, I have all the information that I need.”
The course marks the first major effort by the Institute of American Civics, which announced its inaugural director last week, toward its mission to provide civic education for UT students and the state. Future programming will include conversations around political polarization and curriculum on America’s founding principles and the basics of civil engagement.
“I think we have a unique chance to be a model in this space,” Haslam said. “In terms of being a place that can be an open forum for the exchange of ideas, realizing that the other person might be right. I honestly think Tennessee can be the place that shows you can do that.”
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