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Notes from the Chancellor » Top 25 Update

Top 25 Update

Top 25

Since we began the journey to become a Top 25 university three years ago, we’ve seen exciting progress on our campus.

We have gained six positions in US News and World Report’s ranking since we began. This fall, the magazine ranked UT at forty-sixth among all public universities in 2013—the same position it held for 2012.

I’m often asked why the metrics of our Top 25 initiative are not the same as US News uses to compile its rankings.

The answer is important—it explains why our quest to become a Top 25 university is more about the comprehensive improvements we are making and their impact on our future.

US News focuses solely on undergraduate education. Our goals for this university are broader and include research and graduate education, which are core to making us a better university overall. They are also critical to the state's economy, job growth, and development of a more educated workforce.

We’re extremely pleased with the gains we’ve made, but significant challenges still lie ahead.

We never said it was going to be easy. But we did say that we would pursue our goal with abandon.

Undergraduate Education

Our emphasis in the first two years of implementation has been on improving undergraduate education. 

We've made the most progress in this area, and the changes we're making are significantly improving the experience for our students.

Our graduation rate is now 63 percent, and we expect that to increase to 66 percent by next year. Retention—the percentage of freshman who stay for their second year—has improved to 85 percent.

We’ve made several changes that have contributed to the improvements.

  • We amended our drop policy to limit undergraduates to dropping no more than four classes after the no-penalty deadline during the course of their program. 
  • We’re reducing bottlenecks students encounter when registering for high-demand required courses. Twenty new lecturers were hired this fall to teach additional course sections, and new technology is being used to monitor registration in real time to improve classroom scheduling. 
  • We’ve added nineteen full-time advisors and have expanded our tutoring staff and locations. We now have tutors in Hess Hall and will soon add seven more tutors to the Student Success Center office in the Commons in Hodges Library.
  • Our new UTracK system will pilot this spring and go live this fall. It pairs students' academic plans with registration to ensure they are taking the classes they need to keep them on track with earning a degree.

In addition, we’re implementing a new 15-4 tuition model, approved by the board in June, which will take effect for undergraduate students who enter next fall. Students will pay for 15 credit hours each semester—the number they must take in order to graduate in four years—regardless of how many they take.

We think 15-4 will be a game changer. It will give us more resources to reinvest in undergraduate programs, and it will give students a financial incentive to graduate in four years.

Graduate Education

Graduate enrollment is down across the nation, and UT is following that trend. We lost some ground in the number of degrees awarded at the master's and doctoral levels.  

The only way to produce more degrees is to recruit more students. The best way to do that is to offer more competitive stipends to attract the best students.

Seventy-five new fellowships have been added in the last three years. New interdisciplinary doctorates and two new degree programs—a Doctor of Nursing Practice and a Doctor of Social Work—have been added to UT's offerings.

To encourage further growth, we’ve greatly improved our graduate admissions process, and we’ve committed $12 million over the next five years to add new fellowships.


Research is the core of what we do and what distinguishes us from all the other universities in the state.

Both federal and total research expenditures have improved, and many changes have made UT more competitive:  

  • We’re working closely with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to find solutions to our nation’s growing energy challenges.
  • We’ve expanded our relationship with Y-12 National Security Complex, and it now involves every college on campus—from Communications to Veterinary Medicine  to Architecture.
  • The Office of Research is working very closely with development to create new relationships and to broaden our existing partnerships with agencies and corporations such as TVA, ORNL, and Eastman Chemical.
  • Several new centers have been created to foster collaboration and multi-disciplinary work, including the UT Humanities Center, the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, and a new National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (CURENT).
  • Nine of the ten UT/ORNL Governor's Chairs have built their research enterprises at UT. Three new researchers have helped expand capabilities in nuclear safety, nuclear radiation, and environmental biotechnology. 

Research is a primary consideration in our building and "core facility" plans, which help bring more large-scale technology and equipment to laboratories through cost-sharing arrangements.

More corporate engagement is key to taking our research to market. We have talented faculty  members and have only scratched the surface on how we can expand our research base.

Faculty and Staff

The average faculty salary has improved through the last two years of raises, and we’ve been able to provide merit pay to our best performers. Faculty and staff pay will continue to be a high priority.

More than $5 million has been raised to provide faculty awards to high-achieving professors. These funds helped create the first two endowed chairs in social work and the first one in architecture. 

A career path is now in place for lecturers who are critical to delivering core courses. A career path for full professors is on the horizon.

Our faculty-to-student ratio remains unchanged.

Infrastructure and Resources

Our per-student expenditure metric has improved and our endowment has increased—but other schools have seen similar changes, so the gap that measures us against our peer average has widened.

Development is focused on more scholarships, fellowships, faculty funding, and what our colleges need to be Top 25 programs.
The Campaign for Tennessee ended in 2011, UT experienced record fundraising in fiscal year 2012, and 2013 is projected to be even better. Engaging alumni in the campus and our goals is critical to our journey. 

We must improve our buildings so they are what students would expect to find at a Top 25 university. 

We have opened several state-of-the-art buildings. And thanks to the governor and the legislature, more buildings will be coming on line in the future.

More than $20 million has been invested in deferred maintenance and improved energy efficiency throughout campus.

A Final Note

Metrics are vital to tracking progress, but other great changes can't be measured or summarized in a graph. 

I’ve seen an incredible culture change across our campus.

Departments campus-wide are all talking about how to make their programs Top 25 operations.

There is a growing confidence across our campus that we can be a Top 25 university. That will be the fuel for the next leg of our journey.