On November 6, the University of Tennessee celebrated the investiture of Chancellor Donde Plowman with a traditional academic.
As part of the ceremony, Plowman delivered her first flagship address, where she lauded UT’s legacy of trailblazers, celebrated the university’s accomplishments, and looked toward the future.
“We are standing at a pivotal moment of extraordinary opportunity,” she said in her address. “What we do next is up to us.”
Transcript of Chancellor’s Address:
Thank you, Provost Manderscheid, for that kind introduction, and thanks to all of you for being here today. Thank you, President Boyd and Trustee Compton, for the faith you have placed in me.
I also want to thank my husband, Dennis, for your love and support; and my sons, Kevin and Chijioke, for the joy you bring to my life every day.
Since I have been back on Rocky Top, and especially this past weekend as we celebrated Homecoming, I have met person after person who told me how their time here at UT transformed them and about all the reasons they still consider this place their home.
It’s fitting, because for me the last four months have felt like coming home.
It is a bit like sitting down at a piano again after years away. Your hands know just where to go. Your fingers remember the weight of the keys. You hear the melodies in your head. Yet it still takes a little practice to get a feel for the music again. That’s what I’ve been doing since July—getting a feel for this campus again.
I’ve been on a listening tour, accepting nearly every invitation that comes in. Each week, I hold office hours and spend time with our students, faculty, and staff. I have been engaging the deans, touring our colleges, and asking hard questions of the cabinet.
The progress this university has made since I was here as a faculty member and department head nine years ago is remarkable. Our campus has undergone a breathtaking physical transformation, and because of your hard work more programs than ever are ranked among the top in the nation.
One thing is clear: we are standing at a pivotal moment of extraordinary opportunity. What we do next is up to us.
These times of great opportunity are rare but not unprecedented.
More than a century ago, a 32-year-old son of a Presbyterian minister named Charles Dabney arrived at the University of Tennessee to become its 11th president.
It was 1887—25 years after the Morrill Act establishing the land grant universities, 18 years after UT received its land-grant designation. When Dabney came to UT, he found a modest campus offering a classical education to Southern gentlemen. But what he saw was possibility and great opportunity.
Dabney revamped the curriculum. He replaced and then doubled the size of the faculty; the student body grew threefold. UT fully admitted women for the first time in 1892, and Dabney hired a dean of women to help ensure their success. The university even started its first women’s basketball team in 1903.
Dabney also convinced the Tennessee Legislature to start investing in the university, leading to the first state appropriation. These were bold moves, and by the time he left in 1904 UT was a prominent research university with a sprawling campus, more than 50 faculty and staff, and 500 students.
Charles Dabney launched us on the path to becoming the world-class research institution we are today, all while focusing on our commitment to education. That path to greatness wasn’t preordained. Great things happened because one person recognized the moment and—with courage—lit the path for others.
Stepping forward with courage is something Tennesseans have always done.
In 1794, the people of this region founded this university—the first public university west of the Appalachian Divide. That was courageous.
In 1846, when the US secretary of war asked for 2,800 volunteers to fight in the Mexican–American War, more than 30,000 Tennesseans answered the call. That was courageous.
And in 1920, when it came time for the Tennessee General Assembly to decide whether to amend the US Constitution and give women the right to vote, a young lawmaker from East Tennessee cast a courageous vote. In his pocket, Representative Harry T. Burn carried a letter from his mother, Phoebe. At her urging, he took a stand and voted yes. Tennessee became the final state needed to secure ratification, and the US Constitution was amended a week later.
I love these stories. They’re examples of acts of courage that challenged people in power and moved institutions. Sometimes that’s what it takes to make change.
The Morrill Act created the land grant and extended education to those who were not part of the elite or wealthy class. However, it didn’t guarantee education for everyone. So imagine the courage of Gene Mitchell Gray, Lincoln Blakeney, and Joseph Patterson, three young black men who were denied admission to UT’s graduate school. They took their case to court and won. In 1952, they were finally awarded the opportunity they deserved.
In 1960, Theotis Robinson was denied undergraduate admission because he was black. With support from his parents, he pressed his case with President Andy Holt and the Board of Trustees. In 1961, Robinson, along with Charles Blair and Willie Mae Gillespie, was admitted to the University of Tennessee. It was their courage that finally opened our doors to everyone, lighting the way for many others.
Bold leadership—the kind that changes hearts and minds, that opens doors that have never opened before, that propels organizations and society forward—this kind of leadership takes courage.
We are all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, those who were unafraid to challenge the conventional wisdom and chart a new path.
Legendary engineering professor Fred Brown showed us the difference it can make to have an advocate for underrepresented students. Brown went into high schools across Tennessee to personally recruit top students into the minority scholarship program he founded.
Virginia Moore essentially built UT Extension from the ground up as our first extension agent in the 1900s. She went to all 95 counties in Tennessee, teaching women to grow and preserve their own food.
Bill Bass transformed the entire field of forensic anthropology with his radical idea to create a place where he could study dead bodies.
And Pat Summitt’s legacy lives on not only on the basketball court but in the hearts of all of us who face challenges and stare them down with unwavering grace.
Because of these trailblazers, and so many more, we are where we are today. And where is that?
Today the University of Tennessee is graduating more students, conducting more high- impact research, connecting with more Tennesseans, and garnering more support than ever before.
Across this state, countless children grow up wearing orange and dreaming of becoming a Volunteer. Last year more than 7,000 students earned a degree from this institution.
We want to make more of these dreams come true. We also want to fulfill those dreams for young people who can’t envision them or don’t think they are possible. Through UT Promise and other scholarship programs, we are providing opportunities to more students who need them than ever before.
Those opportunities allow our students to benefit from top-ranked programs in nuclear, aerospace, and computer engineering. In nursing, theatre, and printmaking. In law, architecture, and supply chain management. In business analytics, information sciences, and many, many others.
The education they receive here and the experiences they have while here on campus are transformative. We offer exceptional out-of-classroom opportunities that enhance the total educational experience for our students.
Last year, nearly 20 percent of our undergraduates—a record 4,460 students—participated in research. We are among the top universities in the country for undergraduate engagement in research.
More than 1,300 students studied abroad last year, connecting Tennessee to the world and opening up more opportunities to become Fulbright and Rhodes Scholars.
The faculty who mentor and teach our students are at the top of their field, conducting research that is pushing the boundaries of what we know about science and society.
We are making our nation’s power grid more efficient and secure. We are helping diabetes patients monitor their blood sugar without pricking their finger. We are advancing STEM education here in Appalachia, where the mortality rate exceeds the nation’s and where socioeconomic challenges beg for attention.
Beyond scientific achievements, our research touches communities near and far.
Our pro bono law clinic is one of the oldest in the US and a model for how to inspire future attorneys to give back to their communities.
UT Libraries is interviewing hundreds of survivors of the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires, archiving stories of heartache and resilience as our neighbors rebuild after tragedy.
And at the UT Institute of Agriculture our faculty are discovering how to improve plant and animal production, which will help feed a growing world population.
The impact of our work is possible in large part because of the support we receive as an institution.
Last year, we had a record number of donors—more than 47,000. This shows just how broad our base of support really is, that people care enough about this place that they put their money behind it.
In fact, our alumni and friends were so generous during our ambitious Join the Journey campaign that we met our goal nearly two years early. We now have three named colleges, more scholarships, and greater support for faculty than ever before.
Support isn’t just coming from private donors. In recent years, the state legislature has increased its investment in our university and in higher education as a whole. Most public universities across the country cannot say that right now.
Over the last four months, I have crisscrossed the state meeting alums, donors, parents, legislators, and future Volunteers. Every person I have met has told me how much they love this university. Even people who never attended UT tell me how important this university is to them, their families, and their local communities.
Our university, unlike any other entity in this state, connects the people of Tennessee. You feel it when 100,000 fans sing “Rocky Top” in Neyland Stadium. You hear it in the music resonating from our concert halls. You see it in the knowledge shared in our classrooms.
Our legacy lives in every person touched by the teachers, nurses, and social workers who learned to lead at the University of Tennessee.
We should never lose sight of this. This what we stand for.
So, here we are: 225 years after Blount College was founded, 150 years after East Tennessee College became a land grant, 126 years after the University of Tennessee regularly admitted women for the first time, nearly 60 years after Robinson, Gillespie, and Blair defined what it truly meant to promise and deliver an education for everyone.
You have to wonder if Charles Dabney could have imagined where we are today. We have more than 250,000 alumni around the world and have made discoveries that have expanded human knowledge and solved grand challenges.
Now here we stand at another crucial time in our history. Our path, again, is not predetermined. But momentum alone will not carry us into the future we want.
We get to define what it means to be Tennessee’s flagship land-grant university for the next 225 years. We will work together to build this vision. Whatever we decide is the best path forward, I know this: the University of Tennessee will be an institution of courage.
What does that mean?
First, it means we will have the courage to take risks—in our curriculum and in our research.
Let’s be the first land-grant research university willing to radically innovate our curriculum. A 30-hour narrowly focused major may not be the best way to serve every student. Industries and business leaders continue to tell us that they want a workforce with integrated knowledge and skill sets.
I recently heard Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, say that universities should encourage students to major in learning. Imagine that—a major called learning. The best way to prepare students for jobs that haven’t been created yet is to teach them how to learn and how to solve problems.
Let’s have the courage to create more flexible degree programs. Let’s quell any declining trust in higher education by holding ourselves accountable and being bold in meeting the changing needs of students and society.
Let’s acknowledge that innovation and discovery often happen at the intersections of our disciplines—where hard sciences meet social sciences, where technology meets the humanities. These intersections are where we will take on the significant challenges facing Tennessee and our world through collaboration, creativity, and compassion.
We have built a strong and enviable partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the nation’s preeminent science research facility. This relationship is leading to advancements in science that we are translating into useful solutions to everyday problems.
Fulfilling the promise of the new Oak Ridge Institute will provide us with enormous opportunity to move beyond the status quo. We will bring the intellectual power of UT faculty together with other researchers and industry partners.
Let’s create a culture that fosters such connections. Let’s have the courage to take risks and not be limited by the way we have always done things.
Second, we will have the courage to care.
In order to achieve our other goals, we must care about one another. Let’s be known as the university where respectful interaction defines everything we do, where civil discourse is always our default.
Let’s model for the world what it means to have strong convictions on an issue while listening—truly listening—to the strong convictions of others. Let’s give life to the idea that we can be challenged through conversation with those who disagree with us and open ourselves to the possibility that these interactions can move us.
I want every student, staff, and faculty member to find a home here—a place where they feel comfortable being themselves, that will enable us to do our best work and to grow and learn alongside people different from ourselves.
Let’s be the place where we learn from one another and stand up for one another, no matter our differences. Let’s be the place where we celebrate the things we have in common as well as the things that make us different.
Let’s have the courage to care.
Finally, we must have the courage to lead.
The inscription on the Torchbearer statue reads “One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others.” We are the Volunteers. We bear the torch. We give light to others.
It is in the DNA of Tennesseans to step forward in service and in leadership. Let’s give new energy to what it means to be a leader. Let’s recommit to that idea for every member of the Volunteer family. Imagine the Power T as a symbol of courage, demonstrating to the world what it means to step forward and act.
Imagine the Tennessee graduate traveling the world in an orange T-shirt hearing, “You went to Tennessee—what was your Volunteer experience? What did you do to help make the world better?”
We can be that place known around the world for producing graduates for whom service and leadership was part of their experience, and who graduate committed to making the world a better place.
If we summon the courage to take risks in our curriculum and in our research; if we summon the courage to care, to grow and learn beside one another ensuring that everyone matters and everyone belongs; if we summon the courage to lead and serve like the thousands and thousands who have come before us, we will light the way for our state, for other universities, for our world.
We will bear the torch.