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Campus Update: Our Future Is Bright

Every time I speak to groups about what is happening on our campus, I take along a 3D-printed prosthetic hand with an orange Power T on the back. I take it to meetings with donors, alumni, and community leaders. It sits on my desk and is often in the backseat of my car. If you watch the video below, then you’ll know why it has come to represent all that is so good about the University of Tennessee. You can’t help being impressed with Riley Toll, a first-year engineering student who worked with two upperclassmen to design and create her own prosthetic.

When I visited the Tickle College of Engineering at the beginning of the semester, I met Riley and her classmates in the Maker’s Club, where they showed off their work and gifted me an early prototype. It has become the ideal visual aid when I tell stories of our students’ ingenuity, talent, and persistence.

The UT Makers Club is creating prosthetics through 3D printing

Makers club president Chase Cumbelich, Riley Toll, Chad Duty and Alex Weber show some of the 3D printed limbs that the club has made

It’s the perfect example of what we do here at UT. We create. We innovate. We solve problems. Faculty, students, and staff use their skills, talents, education, and research to make things better—to help make their communities better, the state better, and the world better.

Record-Setting Year

By now you may know that we have had a record 18 students offered Fulbright Scholar awards, doubling last year’s record of nine recipients. Our students will take Rocky Top with them as they study wastewater purification in Argentina, insulin release in the Czech Republic, and ancient and contemporary architecture in Indonesia. These awards speak to our investment and commitment to education—to excellence and student success.

It’s no surprise that we are making history with the number of students receiving these prestigious awards because more and more of them are participating in research right here in Knoxville. Our total number of undergraduates participating in research grew by 50 percent last year, for a total of 2,205. Earlier this month, we had 850 students participate in EURēCA, our undergraduate research symposium—up by more than a third from last year.

Student explaining research at EUReCA during Undergraduate Research Week

Our faculty have also been busy at work receiving worldwide recognition for their research. Dr. Richard Jantz has received global acclaim for cracking one of history’s most captivating mysteries: the fate of Amelia Earhart. We also announced that UT will be a partner on a $9.8 million hypersonics development project with the US Air Force Research Laboratory and two other universities to help develop vehicles that travel at speeds greater than five times the speed of sound. One of our Governor’s Chairs, Suresh Babu, was chosen by the US Navy to lead a team that includes Virginia Tech, Ohio State, Iowa State, Colorado School of Mines, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, to conduct research in advanced manufacturing.

For the first time ever, our total research expenditures exceeded $200 million on the Knoxville campus. This total represents an 11 percent growth over last year, compared to a 4.8 percent average national growth. These are dollars that faculty have competitively won to support their research and the work of their student research partners.

Growing Campus

These accomplishments and milestones speak to the progress we’re making as a university. We are not complacent. We are continuing to invest in our students, our faculty, and our campus. This fall, we are preparing to open a new academic building, the Ken and Blaire Mossman Building, and we will break ground on a new $129 million engineering building later in the year. This year the stunning Strong Hall came to life again, and students have been busy in the state-of-the-art laboratories which boast views of the Great Smoky Mountains out of the windows on every side. And with fingers very crossed, we are looking forward to the long-awaited opening of the spectacular new $180 million Student Union. Drive along Volunteer Boulevard and you will see the landscaping being put into place right now. As our campus grows, so, too, will our faculty and our student body.

Rendering of the north side of new engineering building

I have commissioned, and we have begun implementing, an ambitious five-year plan to grow undergraduate enrollment by 15 percent. We hit our first-year goal last August when we welcomed an historic new class of more than 4,897 students. We’re on track to make history again as we expect, for the first time ever, to welcome more than 5,200 new students to Rocky Top this fall. Not only will you see more traditional first-year students, you’ll also see more transfer students. We expanded our Bridge Program with Pellissippi State by 19 percent last year and plan to have another record cohort this fall. We not only want to make a world-class education available to more students, but we want to make sure they succeed once they get here. We’ve been investing in advisors and support programs for students, and it’s paying off. This year, more students returned from fall to spring semester than ever before—a record-setting 95.6 percent! This persistence rate is a reflection on the entire campus community because we share this responsibility. All of our students, faculty, and staff must feel welcomed, included, supported, and able to thrive.

Group of students holding UT Confirmation Day flag

Scholarships play a central role in our ambitious goals to grow our student body by 15 percent—double the 7 percent growth we have experienced in the last 10 years. We are competing with some of the country’s best schools for the top students, and we need to do more for both merit and need-based awards. This year, we expect to award some $50 million in institutional scholarships in addition to the $30 million in HOPE scholarships awarded by the state. We’ve invested an additional $2.5 million in two scholarship programs aimed at helping our most vulnerable high school students, for a total of $16.3 million for the Tennessee Pride and Tennessee Project high schools. Our alumni chapters across the country awarded another $54,900 in scholarships in 2017, more than three times the amount they awarded just two years ago. We also have opened our new Veterans Resource Center and eliminated out-of-state tuition for our veterans, whom we hope to welcome more of in the fall.

Students talk in Humanities Plaza

We are extremely grateful to have such generous donors at our university, and during the 2017 calendar year, we raised $165 million. It was the third-largest fundraising year on record and a $20 million increase over 2016. As part of this effort, I created the Chancellor’s Transformational Fund, and with the $1.2 million given to date, I have been able to support microgrants for students who fall behind and are at-risk for leaving school, provide scholarships to bridge the gap for high-ability students, and give funding to Smokey’s Closet, which offers professional clothes to students who can’t afford interview attire.

This fund has also supported the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships to provide grants to students to study or conduct research abroad. We’ve already seen the fruits of investing in these grants with this year’s Fulbright class. I have also invested in funds to support unpaid internships and co-ops through our Center for Career Development, and we’re working to expand Smokey’s Pantry for those students who might need a little extra to eat as they plug through the semester. We’re very grateful that so many students have donated meal card swipes for others who run out of funds or need a helping hand. I am so very proud that Vols help Vols!

A group of students with orange hands participating in the Slap the Rock event

Truly, it has been an incredible year. We all know there have been challenges, such as an unwelcomed racial separatist group and our discussions about the First Amendment and the role of our iconic Rock, where we left our handprints for justice.

Leading the Way

We are beyond proud of Coach Rick Barnes and our men’s basketball team for capturing a share of the SEC season championship. Tennis, softball, rowing, diving, and so many more sports are competing for national records. We are so pleased to welcome a new football and volleyball coach, and we’re exceedingly proud of how hard all of our student–athletes compete and win inside and outside of the classroom.

Rick Barnes with UT Mens Basketball players

We are very grateful to the General Assembly for the supportive budget that helps build our beautiful buildings and facilities, and ensures that our workers have a living wage and our productive faculty are competitively compensated.

We honored nine new unbelievably talented Torchbearers and handed out 66 awards and 289 academic citations to deserving graduating seniors, talented graduate students, and dedicated faculty. We inducted over a hundred students into Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary society. Our engineers, nurses, social workers, musicians, global business scholars, entrepreneurs, budding lawyers, nutritionists, hospitality and tourism professionals, educators, inventors, artists, and more come through these streets and avenues, buildings and hallways, and their triumphs trump all of the challenges we have met. They are smart, they are prepared, they are ready to change the world, and as I always say, they will lead us to a better, more prosperous, just, and kind tomorrow.

Outstanding students are recognized as Torchbearers during the Chancellor's Honor Banquet

So along with the 3D-printed hand, I take these stories of Tennessee everywhere I go. It has become my mission to make sure that across this state and this country, people know of the great minds and talents and research and exploration we have here at Rocky Top. I hope you’ll take these next few days of spring semester to soak in the companionship you have found here and the common bonds of learning and discovery that draw us together.

As always, I hope you all know how proud I am of the work you are doing and how proud I am to work alongside you to make this place of learning something special you will take with you for the rest of your life.

Onward and upward!