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TB Renee Thomas
Renee Thomas (center) stands with her colleagues in Andy Holt Tower after receiving the Volunteer Spirit award on March 19, 2024.

Renee Thomas of the Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Development at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has received the highest honor available to a university staff member, the Volunteer Spirit award.

TB Renee Thomas
Renee Thomas is surprised with the Volunteer Spirit Award.

When asked what the Volunteer spirit means to her, Thomas said, “I feel you must look at the meaning of volunteer, a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task. Secondly, spirit, the nonphysical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character, the soul. If you put this all together, I believe this expresses the full meaning of the award.”

Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation, and Economic Development Deborah Crawford surprised Thomas with the award during a staff meeting on March 19.

“This honor is to recognize the person who has the courage to act and who gives of themselves in extraordinary ways,” said Crawford, who nominated Thomas for the award. “We can all agree that Renee absolutely demonstrates that every single day.”

Thomas joined UT in 1986 and has been part of the ORIED team since 2008, serving as the director of research finance and administration since March 2021. She said she enjoys meeting individuals from different countries and talking with students about their families and their dreams for careers after graduation.

“This is a diverse community that represents people from all walks of life,” said Thomas. “I have met some of the most wonderful people over my 38 years here. We all possess unique qualities that allow the opportunity to join forces to solve issues.”

When nominating Thomas for the award, Crawford wrote that Thomas has spent many years earning the goodwill and respect of her colleagues through her people-first approach and that she prioritizes relationship building in finding solutions. She commended Thomas for her work contributing to UT’s culture of inclusion, noting her six years of service on the Council for Diversity and Inclusion, including a two-year term as co-chair. Crawford added that institutional growth does not happen without leaders at every level and in every office.

“UT would not be the university it is today without leaders like Renee, who are capable, courageous and caring — who act with integrity on behalf of us all, and to whom we owe our success as well as our gratitude,” said Crawford.

Thomas noted the growth she’s seen over the years in UT’s facilities, research and student body. Even though it’s a large campus, she said, she’s amazed at how quickly individuals get to know one another.

“We should all strive to be of service to those you encounter every day. We should always serve our community and its members with respect and remember we are all a part of something larger than ourselves.”

Thomas will be among those recognized at the annual Chancellor’s Honors Banquet later this spring.


Cindi King (865-974-0937,