Skip to content

Chancellor Cheek’s Speech

Chancellor Cheek Regalia

Chancellor Cheek in his regalia

Thank you President Simek, Student Government President Wilcox, Faculty Senate President Nolt, Alumni President Little, University of Florida Senior Vice President Arrington, and Trustee Loughry.

I want to welcome the members of our Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni and honored guests.

I also want to welcome my family, friends and colleagues who have traveled long distances to attend this event.

Would you please stand and be recognized?

Let me begin by saying I never dreamed I would be the chancellor of a major university; I never dreamed I would be chancellor of the University of Tennessee. But I am delighted to be given the opportunity to serve as your chancellor.

If my mother were alive today she would say, “Jim”—that is what she always called me except when I was in trouble and then it was “Jimmy Geary”—“I can’t believe you’re doing this. I can’t believe you are leading a major university such as the University of Tennessee. I just can’t believe you moved.”

Don’t we always do things that surprise our parents?

I know I did and, yes, my children—Jennifer and Jeff—certainly do.

I stand here today with humility and gratitude to accept the challenge of serving as your chancellor—chancellor of one of the great land-grant universities in the country, chancellor of a university that fully subscribes to and has a bedrock commitment to our three-part mission of education, research and outreach.

My goal is to build on that commitment and make the University of Tennessee an even better place in the years to come.

As you know, Ileen and I moved here recently. People have asked: How has the transition been? Are you happy? Is your wife happy?

I’m delighted to be here, and I am committed for the long term.

Ileen has taken a little more time to make that adjustment. But, last week, she had our yard completely re-landscaped and the irrigation system re-engineered. When I saw the first plan, I said, “No way, it’s too expensive.”

But, let’s just say the work has now been done and it is beautiful. Ileen has achieved her goal of a well-landscaped yard, has the house about like she wants it, and has made many new friends. So she is not only happy, but is now committed for the long term as well.

I’ve heard President Simek refer to the University of Tennessee as a “Dream Factory.” I’ve also heard women’s swim coach Matt Kredich say that students come here to achieve their dreams. These are profound descriptions of this place.

As educators, it’s our job to help students create their dreams, and give them the tools to reach them. Most students walk through the doors of the university as teenagers; it’s their first time to live away from their parents.

Their years at the university are life-changing. The students who will enter this fall are among the nation’s best and brightest. We must help them find the path to their future. We must provide the tools, both socially and intellectually, to help them become productive citizens.

They will leave us as social workers, nurses, authors, scientists, teachers, agriculturalists, engineers, journalists, philosophers, veterinarians and accountants.

Some will become entrepreneurs, Peace Corps volunteers, and graduate and professional school students. They will all change as the result of their experiences here.

They will follow in the footsteps of some of our distinguished alumni such as Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee, DuPont CEO Chad Holliday, co-founder and CEO of Garmin Min Kao, our most recent Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy, and Tennessee’s favorite son, former senator, White House chief of staff and ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr.

Our graduates will change the world in ways that we can’t imagine and in ways that they cannot imagine. That inspires each of us because we are all a part of this transformation.

I don’t believe there is anything greater that we can do for our students than to help them realize their dreams, equip them to change the world and motivate them to serve others.

We truly are a dream machine.

We offer our students a nationally competitive, research-intensive, outreach-oriented, modern, land-grant university—one that is committed to educating undergraduate, graduate and professional students.

Today, we have over 21,000 undergraduates and 6,200 graduate and professional students. The freshman class for fall 2009 is the best ever, with an average GPA of 3.8 and an ACT of 27.

I’m glad I’m not competing for a seat in our freshman class. The competition is rigorous.

We appreciate the support of the governor and legislature for funding the HOPE Scholarship; 99 percent of our state’s freshmen receive it, and it helps defray the cost of attending the university.

The University of Tennessee is one of the top public universities in the nation, and the Colleges of Engineering, Law, Business and Education are ranked among the best in the country.

Our faculty members challenge students’ intellect, to the ends of the earth and beyond. Our professors are able to pursue their own dream as they inspire our students.

Dr. Hap McSween, distinguished professor of earth and planetary sciences, will take them to Mars. He challenges them to ask the big questions—as big as the solar system and beyond.

From Mars we travel to remote areas in Latin America, where Dr. Sally Horn studies climate change with her students, who are always at her side helping her conduct research. And then she sends them to rural schools to help middle school teachers make science come to life. Her work helps us fulfill our mission of teaching, research and outreach.

We have the fastest academic computer in the world, Kraken. We competed successfully for a National Science Foundation grant to fund this computer. Our competitiveness was enhanced by our relationship with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Our partnership is truly a dream team. And this relationship helps us teach our students and enhances the work of our faculty. It also extends knowledge and technology across the state for economic development and job creation.

The problems we can solve together are limitless. The potential for creating knowledge is boundless. Together, our faculty and scientists are advancing research that makes life better for all of us.

For example, engineering professor and director of the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials Dr. George Pharr does pioneering research on materials.

We’re the home to the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis. Its director, Dr. Lou Gross, puts math to work to help predict what’s going to happen in nature. This marriage of math and biology helps us better manage our natural resources. We’re also discovering more about how diseases spread and new ways to prevent them.

This project will bring hundreds of scientists here and put millions of dollars into the local economy.

This institute is just one example of how faculty bring new resources to the university through grants and contracts. Last year our faculty successfully competed for $50 million in new grants and contracts. So far this year, that number is $140 million. And there are three more months to go.

We have an incredible momentum, and we are committed to maintaining a strong positive trajectory.

I don’t think anyone could imagine this city without the University of Tennessee. We contribute to every aspect of life, from theater and music, to science and technology, to law and athletics. The social and intellectual impact is immeasurable.

Our own Dr. Bill Fox, professor of economics and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research, measures the dollars we generate as a university.

Dr. Fox will tell you that conservatively our impact approaches $1 billion—and that’s 24,000 jobs and $80 million in tax revenue. Combine that with the intellectual capital that drives economic development and you’ve got a winning formula.

As the state’s premier university, it’s our responsibility to share our knowledge in a meaningful way, to translate dreams into action, and to generate new jobs through innovation and scientific discovery.

Also, we provide world class graduates, who pursue careers in every conceivable discipline and field, and we educate citizens through outreach in every county in the state.

The Big Orange and the Volunteer spirit is truly a state of mind in this town. Our athletic programs are among the best in nation. Pat Summitt is known throughout the world and is highly regarded for her accomplishments.

I had the pleasure of recognizing her after her 1,000th win—what an accomplishment for any coach!

Our granddaughter Abigail saw me on ESPN and she asked Jennifer, her mother, to replay it for her five times, and then finally Jennifer said, “That is enough.” That makes a grandfather proud.

The day I first set foot on this campus, I knew it was a special place. But, special places only remain special if they continue to evolve. It’s my job to make sure that evolution is well-planned and ongoing.

Today I am asking you to share my dream and embrace a set of strategic priorities for the university. These priorities will make our institution stronger and prepare us for the future.

I commit to provide the leadership as we find ways to:

• Enhance the educational experience of undergraduate, graduate and professional students.

• Enhance research and outreach.

• Increase diversity.

• Build collaborative relationships.

• Place more emphasis on globalization and sustainability.

• Attract and retain stellar faculty.

• Improve the campus infrastructure.

• Strengthen the recognition of faculty, staff, students, alumni and the university itself.

We will also strive to:

• Boost private fundraising.

• Secure additional resources to meet and enhance our objectives.

These are the strategic priorities we will pursue. It will not be easy, we may suffer setbacks along the way, but we will pursue these priorities with abandon.

And I will ask for your help along the way to accomplish them. Together, we will be successful, and we will create a better university by achieving these goals.

I talked to our son Jeff this week and asked him how long I should speak. He said the advance copy of the program says 20 minutes. And then he said something like this: “Dad, no one has ever complained about a speech being too short.”

But, I still have a few more things that I want to say. Our students and faculty compete and win awards at the highest levels.

Let’s start with our students. Each year, we can only nominate four students for the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship. We had three winners and an honorable mention, putting us in the same league as Harvard and Princeton. We also have a Fulbright Scholar, a Udall Scholar and a National Institutes of Health-Oxford-Cambridge Scholar—among many others this year.

Just this year, our faculty received two Fulbright fellowships, a Guggenheim fellowship and two from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ten of our faculty were named fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I want to emphasize my commitment to diversity on this campus. A rich, diverse culture enhances everything we do. I pledge to make this campus a welcoming place to everyone and hostile to no one. As a university community, we believe in the freedom of ideas; we believe in knowledge and the principals that knowledge is about: acceptance and affirmation.

Finally, any discussion of a great university must include the topic of resources. Whether it’s our families, our businesses or our favorite charity, they cannot function and achieve their goals without adequate resources.

Our students, faculty and staff add tremendous value to the University of Tennessee. They deserve the resources needed to follow their dreams and achieve excellence.

We have to be realistic about our resources; they are scarce and they are spread too thin at our university. We must use them wisely and become more efficient. And we must demonstrate more accountability.

We are committed to teaching, research and outreach; we are committed to delivering our programs at the highest level.

To do this takes adequate funding, and I will work tirelessly to secure resources from the state of Tennessee. But we can’t just depend on that. We must work to compete for more grants and contracts, and we are well on our way.

Private dollars are a key component to this formula, and our donors are very generous. We will nourish these partnerships so they will continue to entrust us with their investments.

We are in the second half of the Campaign for Tennessee. I am proud to report that we have gifts and pledges that bring us to 85 percent of our goal. I’m pleased to say that 80,000 people have made this possible. Yes, 80,000 people!

The work of our faculty and alumni inspires many of these gifts. It was Professor James Hung’s positive relationship with alumnus and Garmin CEO Min Kao that resulted in a $17.5 million gift that’s the cornerstone of our new engineering building.

We will ask for additional support from our students and their parents. Students want this university to continue to deliver at the highest level. They want to learn from the professors who perform the research and write the books, and they’re willing to pay for it.

Recently, Student Government Association President Jeff Wilcox traveled to Nashville and testified before the Senate Higher Education Committee in support of increased tuition. He did so because our students recognize the value of their education and they don’t want the quality of their educational experiences eroded.

I’ve described our work at the University of Tennessee in dramatic and emotional terms because I believe deeply in the power of education: It is life-changing.

I am a first generation college graduate, and my education changed my life and instilled in me a lifelong love of learning and the passion to pass it on, and that’s why I chose to become a professor.

The choices for our students are endless as they venture out into the world. We must prepare them to take on the world, to think critically, to adapt to change, to set high goals, to work hard and to overcome their fears and doubts.

We must prepare them to achieve and ultimately go well beyond their dreams.

Let me close with the words inscribed on the Volunteer Statue, affectionately called the Torchbearer: “One who bears a torch stands in a shadow to give light to others.” I promise to abide by this creed every day of my tenure at the University of Tennessee.

Ileen and I thank you for this opportunity to serve this great university, to become part of its traditions, and its commitment to excellent in education, research and outreach.

Thank you for the privilege of joining you in this exciting adventure.

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.