2020 Chancellor’s Flagship Address
With her investiture in 2019, Chancellor Donde Plowman began a new tradition of speaking directly to the campus in a Flagship Address each fall. The signature annual speech is an opportunity to reflect on the year’s successes and challenges, introduce new ideas and initiatives, and consider the direction of the university.
This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pre-recorded Flagship Address was delivered via Zoom on Tuesday, October 27.
Chancellor Plowman’s 2020 Flagship Address
Good afternoon. I’m Donde Plowman, chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. As I’ve said so many times over the last seven months, I wish we were together today. But if we can’t gather in person, then perhaps speaking to you from the rotunda of the Baker Center for Public Policy is the next best thing.
If any Tennessean understood what it meant to lead with courage through tumultuous times, it was the late senator from the Volunteer State. Known as the Great Conciliator, Senator Howard Baker was unafraid to cross party lines to accomplish big things. He is remembered for being fearless in his convictions and steady in his guidance. A year ago, I stood before you at the investiture, during my first Flagship Address, and promised that wherever we were headed, the University of Tennessee would be an institution of courage. I told you we would have the courage to take risks in our teaching and in our research. That we would have the courage to care and the courage to lead. We could not have known then how quickly that commitment would be put to the test and in the most extraordinary and unexpected ways.
Little did we know then that four months later, our university, our country, our world would face a public health crisis unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes.
And what did we do?
We moved 300,000 credit hours online in the middle of the semester with only a few days notice. We shipped hundreds of laptops and WIFI hotspots all across the state and the nation to our students so they could continue to learn. Our alumni and friends generously contributed to an emergency fund for students in need. We set up home offices, we learned how to use Zoom, and took care of our children and loved ones while our conference calls went on and we were teaching our classes.
Instructors discovered new ways of teaching, and students opened themselves up to new ways of learning. Together with creativity, resilience, and a lot of grace we have created a meaningful and memorable educational experience for our students.
Music professor Hillary Herndon turned her students’ recital into a virtual performance for senior home residents. Journalism instructor Gerald Witt turned his class into an online newsroom. Associate Dean David Matthews developed a virtual design studio for students and faculty.
Meanwhile, a team of faculty from across disciplines including public health, social work, nursing, along with Governors Chairs Terry Hazen and Frank Loeffler dedicated their labs and their expertise to developing safety protocols and COVID testing procedures that are protecting our campus and community.
At Oak Ridge National Lab, our joint faculty members are using the world’s most powerful supercomputer to better understand this virus and how to treat it.
Researchers here in the Baker Center and in the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research are running models and advising the state on economic recovery and policy decisions.
Experts in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences have supported teachers and principals in our school districts all across the state.
We have used our ingenuity, our resources, and our talents to deliver the very best for others. In our response, we find patience as we stay safe, hope in our shared sacrifice, and joy in the small moments of connection in this strange new reality.
That new reality shifted again on May 29 in Minneapolis, when George Floyd was captured on camera gasping for his final breaths under the knee of the police officer and crying out for his mother.
It was a cry heard by every mother who saw that video including me.
It was a cry I will never forget.
The response on our campus was similar to that in other cities and communities around the country. We were appalled. And for many of us, we were awakened to the realities of the racism that our fellow Black and brown Americans endure every day.
We strive to be a campus where everyone matters and everyone belongs. Vol is a verb, yes.
Yet, we also know our fellow Vols are deeply impacted by systemic injustice and inequality.
The stories and videos of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have jolted us into action and reflection. They have reminded us that racism isn’t just hateful words spewed by evil people, but it is the inequities baked into systems and bureaucracies and institutions.
We have work to do. Together, administrators, faculty, staff, and students are learning and listening. We’re getting more comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. We are looking honestly at our systems, our own practices, our own processes and asking what are we doing that advantages one group over another?
We sought out Black faculty who left our institution and asked them what could we have done differently.
We have hired a firm to conduct a climate survey of campus this spring. Every college now has a diversity officer and every campus unit has a Diversity Action Plan to recruit and retain faculty, staff, and students of color. We have made funding available to help them implement those new initiatives.
We will turn our Africana Studies program into an academic department and hire additional faculty. Political scientist Shayla Nunally joined the university this summer to lead this effort.
Our first-year studies course a requirement for all freshmen now includes curriculum on diversity and the value of differing perspectives.
In late August, our student athletes thoughtfully and carefully organized and led a safe, peaceful rally across campus. I joined them, along with other university leaders, and watched proudly as our students used their voices to advocate for unity and change.
This is only a beginning. There is much more to do.
These are complex and ingrained issues that are hard to understand sometimes and hard to rectify. We will not always get it right. But to be an institution of courage to be leaders with courage we cannot be afraid to try.
We cannot be afraid to examine and change our own ideas, our own actions, and our own behaviors.
We have spent the last eight months grappling with issues of public health and racism. And yet, even with all that has been on our minds and in our hearts, all the ways our routines have changed and all the obstacles we have encountered we have continued the work of the state’s flagship university.
This year, we welcomed more than 7,100 freshmen and transfer students—a record class. Combined with an increase in professional and graduate students, our total enrollment has exceeded 30,000 for the first time in decades.
Ensuring our students succeed once they get here remains core to our mission. This year, more first-year students than ever returned for their sophomore year putting our retention rate at almost 89 percent, another record.
But, it is not enough.
We won’t let up until we know every student who enrolls here has a path to success.
This year, to that end, we established the Division of Student Success and hired a new vice provost, Amber Williams. She and her team immediately got to work consolidating and coordinating efforts across campus.
Every incoming student is now assigned a Vol Success Team that checks in with the students regularly, connects them to resources, and helps them overcome obstacles.
Our student athletes’ accomplishments in the classroom are at an all-time high, with an average GPA of 3.5 across all of our teams. The aspirations we have for our student-athletes go well beyond their performance on the field and on the court.
This fall we established a new commission, the Chancellor’s Commission for Disabilities, to give light to the needs of disabled students and employees. This commission will provide recommendations and help us remove barriers.
We are also investing in the future of Tennessee through our research, innovation, and community impact.
The USDA has turned to our Institute of Agriculture and faculty member Heather Sedges to help improve the mental and behavioral health among farmers in the South.
Frances Harper, in STEM education, and with her colleagues in computer science, they’re developing a robotics program to help local preschoolers learn computing skills while also encouraging Black and Latino students a sense of belonging in computer science.
Sharon Jean-Philippe, an expert in urban forestry, helps communities across Tennessee manage natural resources to improve air and water quality.
Thanks to John Schmisser at the Space Institute, UT was one of eight universities in the country awarded a large grant by the Department of Defense to develop curricula for future hypersonic workforce.
We received a $20 million federal grant to help launch the Oak Ridge Institute, which will prepare world-class leaders for tech industries of the future, in partnership with Oak Ridge National Lab.
We announced a significant partnership with Volkswagen at Cherokee Farm that will create a unique PhD program and leverage our research strengths in materials science and engineering. This year, our research ranked among the top 10 percent in the world for citations per faculty and our research expenditures reached $320 million last year. Three new vice chancellors joined our executive leadership team, bringing new energy and capabilities that have already had a significant impact.
Deborah Crawford in research; Frank Cuevas in student life; and John Zomchick, our new provost, have all brought steady leadership that has allowed for creativity and success among their teams, even amid the crises we have all endured.
We could not have accomplished all of this without our staff, who support our mission in thousands of unseen ways. Thank you for keeping our buildings clean and operational, preparing and serving meals, answering the phones, responding to our technology needs, keeping our students on track, engaging our alumni, and so much more.
What a year. What challenges. But look what we have done, what we have accomplished.
I am grateful to everyone who is helping us meet these challenges. It is not easy. It is exhausting and we still have work to do. I am inspired by the steadfast and downright tenacious commitment you have shown to our flagship mission throughout it all.
When I arrived here 15 months ago, I asked all of you to reconsider what a modern land-grant university could be. We’ve already started the work of putting ideas and words around what this means.
Our strategic visioning process started in January and has included input from hundreds of you. I am excited to present a new vision in December, our collective vision for this campus.
Since March, I have asked you to be flexible, to be creative, and to be compassionate. You have done that time and time again, demonstrating how critical these Volunteer Values are in times of uncertainty. It’s often hard to be nimble when you’re a large institution composed of tens of thousands of people and volumes of policies, but we’ve shown in this moment that we can be nimble. We will welcome a time when we can gather again in groups large and small, without masks and without fear. And when we do, we will not forget what we have learned here.
For 226 years, our university has served the people of this state through wars, through civil unrest, through natural disasters, and yes, through pandemics. We have always been the standard-bearer for what it means to be a Volunteer.
The flagship is the leader and we will embrace this role as we always have, setting a new course through these unprecedented times. Let’s lead by being the university that values compassion as much as critique, that focuses on potential rather than weaknesses, and that builds confidence by asking the important questions not by knowing all the answers.
We will follow the example of those who came before us Volunteers like Pat Summitt, like Fred Brown, and like Senator Baker who showed us how to lead with grace and courage.
We will embrace our challenges with tenacity and our successes with humility.
We will do these things because it’s what our world needs.
It needs more courage. It needs more kindness. It needs more people like you who are willing to serve, to take risks, and to care.
The world needs more Volunteers.