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Chancellor Donde Plowman stands with the seven Torchbearer award recipients at the Chancellor’s Honors Banquet.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, celebrated the scholarly and professional achievements of its students, faculty and staff at the annual Chancellor’s Honors Banquet, held April 30, and Academic Honors Banquet, held May 1.

Awards presented at the two banquets recognized individuals who exemplify the Volunteer spirit by excelling in research and creative endeavors, making significant impacts on campus culture, and demonstrating a high level of leadership and service to the university and wider community.

“Our exceptional students, faculty and staff understand what it means to be a Volunteer — to have the courage to step forward in leadership and service,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman. “They are committed to making our campus and our community better. Their stories are inspiring.”

2024 Torchbearers

Seven seniors were named Torchbearers, UT’s highest undergraduate student honor, in recognition of their academic achievements and outstanding commitment to the university and Knoxville community.

They are Jack Duncan, of Cleveland, Tennessee, studying economics and mathematics; Carragan Fields, of Wilder, Tennessee, pursuing a degree in agricultural leadership and community engagement with a minor in food and agricultural business; Sarah Lange, of Clarksville, Tennessee, majoring in addiction and behavioral neuroscience with a premedical concentration; Abby Ann Ramsey, of Knoxville, studying journalism and media and religious studies with a concentration in religion and nonprofit leadership; Alvin Robertson, of Memphis, pursuing a degree in therapeutic recreation with a minor in public health; Harrison Van Eaton, of Hixson, Tennessee, majoring in neuroscience with a pre-physician assistant concentration; and Rylie West, of Eastvale, California, studying journalism and electronic media with a minor in advertising and public relations.

More than 700 students have been named Torchbearers since the award’s inception in 1931.

“The honorees recognized with these awards represent the excellence that defines our institution,” said Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor John Zomchick. “Their dedication to UT’s mission inspires us all, and their contributions yield lasting benefits across our campus, throughout the community and around the world.”

Top Faculty Awards

Macebearer: J. Wesley Hines, Postelle Professor, Chancellor’s Professor, and Head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering, Tickle College of Engineering

Macebearer is the university’s highest faculty honor, recognizing a distinguished career and commitment of service to students, scholarship and society.


J. Wesley Hines has been named the 2024 Macebearer. He has served the university since 1995, rising from a research assistant professor to his current position as head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering. Over the past 30 years, Hines has led 131 research projects with awards totaling over $17 million, sponsored by both government and commercial entities in the U.S. and abroad. He has written more than 350 technical publications and has been invited to speak around the world on topics including national nuclear strategy, distance education delivery approaches, high-value asset management and reliability, and maintainability education.

“Being named Macebearer is a great honor, and as I look back on my 30-year career here it just reminds me of so many great mentors who helped mold my career, colleagues who put their trust in me and team members who worked to make this a such a rewarding place to work,” said Hines. “Having my name listed with the great UT Volunteers who have been named Macebearers humbles me and validates the efforts we all make on a daily basis.”

Alexander Prize: James Plank, Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Tickle College of Engineering

The Alexander Prize honors a faculty member who is an exceptional undergraduate teacher and distinguished scholar.


James Plank is the 2024 recipient of the Alexander Prize. He joined UT in 1993 after receiving his doctorate in computer science from Princeton University. His research spans computer storage systems, parallel computers and, most recently, brain-based computing systems. Plank’s papers have more than 13,000 citations, and his research projects have brought in over $16 million. Plank blends theory with hands-on programming to teach two of the hardest courses at the heart of the computer science curriculum. His teaching focuses on core computer science: data structures, algorithms and systems programming. His accomplishments in brain-based computing are rivaled only by his research mentorship — half of his undergraduate research assistants attended graduate school, and two are on the EECS faculty.

“Having been here 31 years, I feel as though I’ve been a Volunteer forever. I associate a can-do attitude with being a Volunteer,” said Plank. “I primarily teach sophomores, juniors and seniors, attempting to install this can-do attitude with respect to computer programming — once you know how things work under the hood, both theoretically and pragmatically, you can attack any problem successfully. You don’t need to be shown the answer — you have the tools to figure it out.”

Thomas Jefferson Prize: Paul Harrill, Professor of Cinema Studies, School of Art, College of Arts and Sciences

The Thomas Jefferson Prize is awarded to a faculty member who demonstrates excellence in research and creative activity.


Paul Harrill is the 2024 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Prize. He joined UT as a tenured associate professor in 2013 and currently co-chairs the Cinema Studies program. His most recent film, “Light from Light,” was acclaimed in major publications and included on many end-of-the-year top film lists. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was picked up by a respected distribution company, and was screened at several national and international film festivals. Harrill has three additional films in the works and has been actively consulting on a documentary. He was a leading force in creating Film Fest Knox, which launched in November 2023. His ambitious creative research and engagement record has attracted local and influential national press, elevating the stature of cinema studies at UT.

“Harrill’s ambitious creative research and engagement record has already proven that it can attract local and influential national press, and these projects will continue to elevate the visibility and stature of cinema studies, the School of Art, and the University of Tennessee,” said Beauvais Lyons, Chancellor’s Professor of Art and Divisional Dean for Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Harrill has a track record of bringing the experiences and new knowledge produced by his creative research into his classes as well as enriching our local culture.”

L. R. Hesler Award for Excellence in Teaching and Service: Teri Dobbins Baxter, Williford Gragg Distinguished Professor of Law and Interim Associate Dean for Faculty Development, College of Law

The L. R. Hesler Award was established in 1982 and recognizes exceptional teaching and service. Hesler, who served as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for many years, was known for his outstanding teaching abilities and service to the university community.


Teri Dobbins Baxter is the 2024 recipient of the L. R. Hesler Award for Excellence in Teaching and Service. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Duke University and her Juris Doctor from Duke University School of Law. She practiced in litigation and appellate court law in Houston, Texas, for five years before transitioning to academia. In 2013, Baxter joined the College of Law, where she is currently the interim associate dean for faculty development. She continues to teach secured transactions and a family and privacy seminar as well as constitutional law and torts. Her scholarship focuses on minors’ rights and the potential conflicts between parents’ fundamental rights and the government’s duty to protect children.

“Being a Volunteer means choosing to work for the benefit of others. UT has empowered me to change the lives of students as I teach them how to be a lawyer and how to use that knowledge to build and maintain a society that reflects their values,” said Baxter. “UT also connects me to amazing researchers and teachers from a variety of disciplines across campus who inform and enrich my work and with the resources I need to produce scholarship that positively impacts the world.”

Top Staff Award

Volunteer Spirit Award: Renee Thomas, Director of Research Finance and Administration, Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Development

The Volunteer Spirit Award is the highest honor available to a university staff member and recognizes an individual who has gone above and beyond to serve the university community.


Renee Thomas is the 2024 recipient of the Volunteer Spirit Award. She joined UT in 1986 and has been part of the Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Development team since 2008, serving as the director of research finance and administration since March 2021. Thomas served for six years on the Council for Diversity and Inclusion, including a two-year term as co-chair. She said she enjoys meeting individuals from different countries and talking with students about their families and their dreams for careers after graduation.

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

Read more about all of the students, faculty and staff who received awards at the Chancellor’s Honors Banquet and Academic Honors Banquet.


Cindi King (865-974-0937,