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A Statement on the Passing of Pat Summitt

It is a very sad day on Rocky Top. Volunteers around the world are mourning the loss of the legendary Pat Summitt. Pat was the greatest coach of all time; her fierce spirit will live on through her players, and through all of us who were inspired by her on a daily basis. Our sincerest sympathies go out to Tyler and all her family and friends.

Read Pat Summitt’s Volunteer Story on

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Read more from The Pat Summitt Foundation and sign a guest book.

A Message of Gratitude

Dear Colleagues,

When I started my career in higher education, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to serve as chancellor of one of the best land-grant universities in the country, a university that subscribes to our three-part mission of education, research, and outreach. This is the best and most enjoyable job of my career; it is a tremendous privilege to serve and to work with each of you to make this university a better place.

It’s now time for me to step aside and return to the faculty. I’ve been in discussions with my family and President DiPietro for months about this decision. It’s important to have a smooth transition; for that reason, the president and I have agreed that I will stay on as chancellor until the new chancellor arrives.

We all began this journey together with a firm commitment to enhance the educational experiences of our students, to enhance research and outreach, to build partnerships, to increase diversity, and to become more global and sustainable. I believe that together we have accomplished this and more. We have worked hard and we’ve struggled at times; we’ve experienced great joy and great accomplishment and always maintained the Volunteer spirit.

We have attracted stellar faculty and staff, improved the campus infrastructure, boosted private fundraising, strengthened recognition of UT, and secured additional resources. Our athletics department is stronger financially. Our student-athletes are making great progress in the classroom with the highest grades ever while also training to be champions.

We have increased enrollment while still attracting the best and brightest students. Our graduation rates have shown exceptional growth and our retention rates are moving up as well. We have launched major building and renovation projects; our great team has worked hard to transform the look of our campus, and new buildings and improved grounds have made it more beautiful and inviting. We have also achieved greater consistency with our branding. Whether you’re looking at our publications, our signage, or our buildings, you definitely know you’re in Big Orange Country.

Serving as your chancellor has truly been the capstone of my career, and I thank President DiPietro and the Board of Trustees for the opportunity and their support. Ileen and I are grateful to each of you for the chance to serve the University of Tennessee and become a part of its great traditions.

Go Vols,


A Statement on the Tragedy in Orlando

On behalf of the UT community, I would like to express our profound sadness and outrage at Sunday’s events in Orlando. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, loved ones, and friends.

We stand with the LGBTQA+ community. We are a stronger society when we stand together arm in arm to resist hatred and intolerance.

A gathering organized by our own LGBTQA+ community will take place at 6:00 p.m. today on the second floor of Hodges Library. Counselors from the Student Counseling Center, staff from the Center for Health Education and Wellness, and clergy from Tyson House will be on hand to offer support.

New Executive Director for the UT Space Institute

I’m pleased to announce that Mark Whorton, chief technologist of Teledyne Brown Engineering and president of Teledyne Optech Inc., has been named executive director of the UT Space Institute in Tullahoma.

Mark will begin on July 18. I hope you will join me in wishing him well in this new role and welcoming him to the UT family.

With a strong background in government, higher education, and private industry, he has the skills to lead the institute well into the future.

Mark has extensive experience in designing navigation and control systems for aerospace vehicles at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and for private industry. He also was an adjunct professor at Tennessee State University’s Center of Excellence in Information Systems, working on next-generation ground-based telescopes.

Mark has a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and master’s and bachelor’s degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama.

I want to thank the members of the search committee for their work in finding the right candidate for this critical role. I also want to thank Associate Executive Director James Simonton for serving as acting director over these past few months following the retirement of Robert “Buddy” Moore, who passed away in May.

Jimmy G. Cheek

Impact of State Law on Office of Diversity and Inclusion

It saddens me to share with you that a new state law requires us to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017. This means that no funds can go to operate the office. Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall has announced that he is becoming the vice president for the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity at the University of Washington and chief diversity officer for the UW system. One of the employees in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been offered another position with the university, and the university continues to assist the other employee whose position is being eliminated. As the law requires, the university will reallocate the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s budget to minority engineering scholarships.

The new law does not permit us to reallocate money to continue to fund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion from another budget. As a result, there will be a reorganization of the units that reported to the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion. The Office of Multicultural Student Life will report to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Life; the Office of Equity and Diversity will report to the chancellor; the Educational Advancement Program will report to the Office of the Provost; and the Commission for Blacks, the Commission for LGBT People, the Commission for Women, and the Council for Diversity and Interculturalism will report to the chancellor. The Pride Center will remain a gathering space for students, but it will no longer be staffed by university employees.

We are still attempting to determine how other portions of the law affect the university.  I know there will be more questions, some of which have not been resolved.  The vice chancellors and I will communicate further when we have more information.

This in no way diminishes our commitment to diversity and inclusion. The new law doesn’t impact most of the funding for those efforts. We will use the coming year to determine how to more effectively advance diversity and inclusion on our campus, how to measure the effectiveness of our efforts, and who should lead those efforts in the future.

Diversity and inclusion are priorities in our Vol Vision 2020 plan. I am committed to making sure each person is respected for who they are and that each person feels safe and valued on our campus. It’s my responsibility to make sure that we’re providing access, accountability, opportunity, and education.

Over the past year, I met with students from the Black Student Union and UT Diversity Matters to listen to their concerns. We resolved some problems and disagreed about others, but we were listening and talking and I learned a lot from our students. As a result of these meetings, we have improved our bias protocol, increased our commitment to inclusivity training, and addressed diversity issues in our Student Counseling Center.

I know there is still much work to do to create and maintain a welcoming work and educational climate. I am committed to continuing the conversation, listening, and taking positive action steps. I am asking for your help in these efforts.

Introducing the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research

Boyd family

Randy Boyd (center) and his wife, Jenny (second from right), pose for a photograph with their sons, Thomas Boyd, with his wife Lindsey (left), and Harrison Boyd (right).

Last month, I was honored to be a part of the re-naming celebration for the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, one of the university’s most longstanding and impactful research enterprises.

Earlier this spring the UT Board of Trustees voted to name the Center for Business and Economic Research after Randy and Jenny Boyd. It’s a fitting tribute to the Knoxville couple, who share a demonstrated commitment to improving the quality of life for all Tennesseans. The Boyds, both UT alumni, recently made a significant investment in the center.

The center was established in 1937 and is housed within the Haslam College of Business.

Bill Fox, director of the center and the inaugural recipient of the Randy and Jenny Boyd Distinguished Professor appointment, said the Boyds’ investment will make the center an even stronger asset to the state and the nation.

“At its heart, the Boyd Center is a dedicated group of researchers focused on the application of policy,” he said. “It’s a group that has spoken to the state legislature, testified to Congress, and worked around the world.”

For seventy-nine years, the Boyd Center has focused on state and national economic trends for government and private organizations, helping to inform policy considerations on topics such as taxation, health care, education, workforce needs, capital investments, and welfare. Fox, associate director Matt Murray, and their team work closely with the state on a variety of topics. The center has provided the economic report to the governor of Tennessee annually since 1975.

Randy Boyd is commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. He graduated from UT in 1979 with a degree in industrial management. He founded Radio Systems Corporation, which produces more than 4,600 pet products under brand names such as PetSafe, Invisible Fence, and SportDOG. He took a leave of absence from his company in 2013 to be a special advisor on higher education to Governor Bill Haslam. During that time, Boyd helped develop the Drive to 55 initiative and the Tennessee Promise scholarship. Years ago he was instrumental in establishing the Knox Achieves program, which helped to lay the foundation for the statewide Tennessee Promise.

“If you name the people who make the most impact on the state of Tennessee, near the top of the list, if not the top of the list, are Randy and Jenny Boyd,” Haslam said during the ceremony.

Randy Boyd was pleased to tell the many people gathered for the ceremony that they had just learned that Tennessee’s unemployment had dropped to 4.5 percent for the first time since the Great Recession.

He talked about Tennessee’s vast economic potential and said that investing in education is the best way to have the largest impact on peoples’ lives.

He also encouraged guests to invest in the Haslam College of Business.

“If you want to make a change in the world, invest in education. If you want the best return on your investment, invest in business education,” he said.

Randy Boyd with Governor Haslam and University of Tennessee administrators

Celebrating the dedication of the Boyd Center (from left) are Director Bill Fox, Chancellor Cheek, Governor Haslam, Randy Boyd, Dean Steve Mangum, and UT System President Joe DiPietro.

Happy graduates

UT Student Debt Is Well Below the National Average

As the Class of 2016 makes the transition from students to alumni, we can take pride in the work we have done to prepare them to meet their aspirations. We can be equally proud of our efforts to help them be well-positioned financially for the next phase of their lives.

We’ve worked hard on many fronts to help more of our students graduate within four years, emphasizing how on-time graduation helps to minimize the need for student loans. We have also helped more students bridge financial gaps by offering more need-based scholarships.

Five out of ten UT undergraduates leave here with some level of student loan debt. Nationally, seven out of ten undergraduates incur student loan debt.

The total average debt our students incur is well below the national average: UT students have an average debt of $24,000, compared to the national average of $29,000. Our students also do a much better job than most in paying off their loans. UT students’ default rate is 5.5 percent, compared to the national average of 12 percent.

Through our Center for Career Development, we are integrating students into the workforce sooner through internships, practicum experiences, and part-time jobs related to their majors. A large part of the center’s focus has been on connecting with undergraduates much earlier in their college careers to help them build the kind of experiences that can give them the edge in competing for full-time jobs after graduation.

Based on the 2014–15 academic year, about 85 percent of our graduating seniors get jobs within six months of graduating, with an average annual salary of $45,000.  Salaries vary by major, with some reporting up to $110,000 annually.

Leaders in Science, Global Delivery, and Design Receive Honorary Doctorates

Honorary degree recipients with President DiPietro and Chancellor Cheek

UT System President Joe DiPietro, Thom Mason, Robin Klehr Avia, Fred Smith, and Chancellor Cheek gather at a brunch held for the honorees.

Thom Mason, Fred Smith, and Robin Klehr Avia know a lot about bringing big ideas to life.

All three have changed the world with their ideas: Mason is the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Smith is the founder of FedEx, and Avia is regional managing principal at Gensler, one of the world’s leading architectural firms.

This month, I had the pleasure of awarding each of them an honorary degree from our university.

After receiving their degree, each spoke at a commencement ceremony, challenging graduates to be innovators and to make their life’s work count.

Thom Mason

Thom Mason receiving his honorary degree

Mason, who received an honorary doctorate in science at our graduate hooding, encouraged students to “look for a challenging problem to solve. It’s very rewarding and is the best use of your education.”

Through UT’s strategic partnership with ORNL, we share joint institutes, faculty, and research centers, including the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, which is one of the fastest-growing graduate programs in the country and brings some of the brightest minds here to pursue PhDs in energy sciences and engineering.

Faculty from UT and ORNL have collaborated on breakthroughs in supercomputing, understanding and combating climate change, and developing alternative fuels.

As president and CEO of UT-Battelle LLC, which manages ORNL for the US Department of Energy, Mason was instrumental in the discussions that led to the creation of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation.

An experimental condensed matter physicist, Mason said his personal quest has been finding ways to meet the energy needs of people while mitigating the impact of those energy choices.

Although he has received two honorary degrees from universities based in his native Canada, we were the first American university to honor him in this way.

“We need transformational science to remove the roadblocks to carbon-free energy,” he said. “As you take the next step in your career, I encourage you to consider ways to be part of this effort.”

Fred Smith

Fred Smith receiving his honorary degree

Founder, chairman, and CEO of FedEx Corporation, Smith received an honorary doctorate in business and addressed Haslam College of Business graduates.

“Innovation is the holy grail of successful business and is key to ensuring the prosperity of our society,” he told them. “For FedEx, it’s been the key to keeping millions of customers satisfied.”

Smith was born in Mississippi and moved to Memphis as a boy. While completing a degree in economics at Yale University, Smith outlined a business model for an overnight delivery service designed to accommodate time-sensitive shipments for a term paper. He received only an average grade.

After graduation, Smith served in the US Marine Corps for three years before returning to Memphis to focus on his term paper idea. In 1971, he founded Federal Express.

Now the top global courier delivery services company in the world, FedEx is a $45-billion-a-year enterprise.

Smith’s success is a great lesson in staying true to yourself and believing in your ideas.

His leadership brought many firsts to the industry—advancements that made faster package sorting and tracking possible and made shipping much more convenient for customers. He pushed for changes to archaic shipping regulations meant for railroads to allow the company to grow its air cargo service to serve 220 countries and territories.

He told graduates that continuous improvement, creating a positive corporate culture, and workforce training are essential for fostering innovation in the organizations they join.

“A culture of innovation makes the United States more competitive, gets new ideas to the international marketplace quicker and creates a better society for us all,” he said.

Robin Klehr Avia

Robin Avia receives her honorary doctorate

Avia, regional managing principal and chair of the executive committee of the board of directors for Gensler, received an honorary doctorate in fine arts.

She told graduates from the College of Architecture and Design that being a part of their day marked a poignant moment for her.

Forty years ago, when she graduated from our interior design program, she didn’t get to attend commencement ceremonies because her father had recently died and her mother needed her at home.

It was great to see her enjoy the ceremony and to share that special moment with her.

Gensler employs five thousand architects and designers in forty-six locations. Avia supervises the firm’s offices in New York City, Boston, Toronto, São Paulo, Costa Rica, and Mexico City.

“More than 200 million people experience a Gensler design every day,” she said. “Design provides us every day with the opportunity to change lives and make a difference.”

Avia urged graduates to find the synergy between their work and their personal lives and to live a life of significance.

“Significance is not about what you did yesterday or last week; it’s about your life’s work and your reputation over the course of your entire career,” she said.

Avia is a wonderful advocate for our architecture and design program. Gensler has hired nearly fifty UT graduates in recent years, and one of our recent graduates is working on Gensler’s prestigious Shanghai Tower project.

Dean of Students Gatherings Connect with Students

Chancellor Cheek with students at Orange Plate Special

Chancellor Cheek catches up with a few seniors at an Orange Plate Special lunch in April.

Associate Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students Melissa Shivers has been working hard to dispel the myth that students can interact with her office only when they are in trouble.

In its role of challenging, engaging, and supporting students, the Office of the Dean of Students has launched several creative initiatives to interact with a broader range of students in more casual settings. The gatherings have helped us learn more about our students and how we can improve the overall student experience.

Dean of Students Melissa Shivers

Dean of Students Melissa Shivers

Through monthly Orange Plate Specials, students can join us for lunch and casual conversation at a predetermined Volunteer Dining location. We’ve hosted up to twelve students at a time. With no set program, we are free to ask each other all kinds of questions.

I always enjoy asking students about how they decided on their major and how they plan to use it to build their career. The students I’ve met never fail to impress me with their level of maturity and self-awareness. Most are very clear about their goals and the steps they need to take to achieve them. They are also quite curious. They wonder about what it is a chancellor does. How do you spend your time every day? How do you get to be a chancellor? Are you the person who sends me all of those e-mails?

At our last Orange Plate Special, we hosted a group of seniors. I learned about where several were headed after graduation. They asked me about my family and I had a chance to show them pictures of my four grandchildren.

Orange Plate Special graphicDean Shivers puts on a pair of very bright Big Orange tennis shoes for Vol Talks and Walks, a similar initiative. She tweets where she plans to be on campus and encourages students to stop by. Last time she and the deans gave out doughnuts on the Johnson-Ward Pedestrian Walkway. Earlier this year, she was on the ag campus after a student invited her over to share his frustrations about parking on the west end of campus.

The office’s new Take Your Faculty/Staff to Lunch program aims to connect students with people they may see only in a classroom or laboratory. Students can invite their professor or a staff member to lunch and pick up passes for two free meals. So far 126 students have taken a faculty member to lunch and had the chance to connect on a different and more personal level.

Fun kids of the Class of 2016

New Grads Are Poised to Change the World

Earlier this month, I performed one of my favorite tasks as chancellor—standing on the commencement stage and congratulating our newest alumni as they embarked on the next phase of their lives.

Celebrating our students’ achievements and seeing their families’ pride is special and rewarding to me.

This spring we awarded diplomas to nearly five thousand undergraduate and graduate students. These diplomas represent years of hard work and self-discipline.

Family members and friends provided graduates with many forms of support, from monetary assistance to daily encouragement. Our faculty and staff did a superb job of ensuring they had experiences—in and outside the classroom—to equip them for whatever they have chosen to do next, whether they begin full-time work, go to graduate school, or devote themselves to service.

Many of our Volunteer graduates leave here with plans to make our world a better place, and we’re confident they will. Let me introduce you to a few who have already started:

Jordan Roach at work in the labJordan Roach, of Englewood, Tennessee, wants to be a surgeon and work with pediatric cancer patients, especially those with certain types of brain tumors.

He graduated with a degree in biological sciences, and he got firsthand experience working in Professor Engin Serpersu’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology. The lab team’s research could lead to the development of new drugs to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

This summer, Jordan will be an intern in the Pediatric Oncology Education Program at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. His research there will focus on a specific type of childhood cancer.

“I will be applying to a variety of medical schools this coming June,” he said. “While I am open to all medical specialties, I have special interests in pediatric neurological surgery and translational research.”

Courtney Dennis in cap and gownCourtney Dennis, of Jonesborough, Tennessee, is passionate about encouraging other young people, especially minority students, to pursue careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

She earned her degree in materials science and engineering and is starting a full-time job as a production engineer at DENSO Manufacturing in Maryville.

During her time on campus, Courtney held leadership roles with the Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation and the National Society of Black Engineers. She was also active with the Society of Women Engineers.

She tutored students at Knoxville’s Austin-East Magnet High School in math, science, and English. She also helped organize an event that brought 150 youngsters from East Tennessee to UT to learn about engineering.

“I like to be an example to them to show them that minorities and females—and minority females—can be successful in STEM and engineering,” she said.

Courtney understands how important mentors can be because of the support she received from a mentor, Travis Griffin, director of engineering diversity programs.

“He has been an academic advisor, a life coach, a job agent, and so much more to me since before I even stepped foot on campus my freshman year,” she said. “Without his consistent advice and support throughout these years, I doubt I would have made it to the end.”

Brandon McKenna Warner photoBrandon McKenna-Wagner, originally from Sitka, Alaska, has joined the Peace Corps and will soon head to Senegal, where he’ll spend two years helping villagers learn to grow sustainable crops and use their land to its full potential so they can have a more reliable source of food.

Brandon earned his degree in natural resources and environmental economics.

“If I have the ability to make a difference, then it is my duty to do so,” he said.

Eventually he’d like to work for an environmental organization or in renewable energies—“anything that gets me outside to make this world a better place for everyone.”

Brandon, too, credits others for encouraging him to chase his dreams.

“I couldn’t be more grateful to my professors, friends, and family that have helped me through this process,” he said. “Being a student at UT has truly given me the tools and experience to go on this adventure.”

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