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.
2023 Flagship Address
Donde Plowman: Thank you, John, for that generous introduction.
Thank you to our student performers for sharing your gifts and talents with us.
It’s hard to believe this is our fifth Flagship Address.
When we considered launching an annual speech back in 2019, I had this idea that we could come together every fall to share our aspirations and our progress, consider our successes as well as our challenges.
I am so grateful to be here today, in this beautiful concert hall with all of you, celebrating the university we all love.
You know, when I share with others what makes Rocky Top special, I often do it by telling stories—your stories.
Everyone I talk to is interested in the students we’re educating, the research we’re doing, the partnerships we’re building—and yes, the games we’re winning.
One of the great joys of my job is watching the pride light up their faces.
So today, as we talk about what our work means—to us and to those we serve—I am going to tell you some stories.
Two weeks ago, I was in a school library in Nashville, sitting around a table with about 20 high school seniors, all interested in going to college, but none of whom had applied.
We were at one of our flagship schools, where—as you know—students who graduate and are admitted to UT receive a full-tuition scholarship.
These students were bright and attentive. They listened carefully, many taking notes.
Finally one young man who had been quiet most of the morning raised his hand and said, “The Flagship Scholarship is great, but how much is room and board? Are there scholarships for that?”
His questions were earnest—he wanted help figuring out how he could be a Tennessee Volunteer.
In that moment, I was reminded again of the importance of what we do.
From the advancement officers raising money for scholarships to academic advisors, from faculty to facilities workers and everyone between, each of you makes a difference.
When you’re in the work every day like we all are, it can be hard to see the strides you are making and the impact you are having.
So let’s take a step back and recognize where we’ve been.
Since the inaugural Flagship Address in 2019:
- We have grown our undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent.
- Our graduate enrollment has also grown by 20 percent, including a 10 percent increase this year alone.
- We have increased our instructional spending by 40 percent.
- Hit 91 percent retention.
- Improved our four-year graduation rate by 8 points.
- Twice been named a Forbes Best Employer.
- Been named a top producer of Fulbright Scholars every single year.
- Had faculty members named to the National Academies and the Royal Society.
- We have set records with the number of alumni, supporters, and friends contributing to our university, last year hitting $264 million.
- Grown our national visibility, with tens of millions of viewers tuning in to watch Tennessee sporting events last year.
- Launched a popular podcast with former Governors Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam, who exemplify civil discourse.
- Doubled our research and sponsored projects, hitting $428 million this year—fueled in part by huge increases at the UT Institute of Agriculture.
- We partnered to launch the UT–Oak Ridge Innovation Institute and have deepened innovation-driven relationships not only with ORNL but also between the Tickle College of Engineering and partners like Volkswagen, AT&T, Eastman, Nissan, TVA, and more.
- We have strengthened our partnerships with local government, working side by side with the City of Knoxville on large projects like a pedestrian bridge across Lake Loudoun.
- And we have established three new colleges, all focused on innovation and workforce skills that our students and our state need.
A year ago, I told you we are a university on the rise.
This list is proof of our momentum.
Five years ago, when I was a candidate for this job, I had dinner with a small group of decision-makers.
I can still remember them saying, “We love UT and we know this is a good university. We want it to be a great university.”
When I think back on that conversation, it reminds me of the popular management book I read two decades ago, called Good to Great.
The first six words of that book are “Good is the enemy of great.”
Good is the enemy of great.
To be great, you must refuse to be just good enough.
The University of Tennessee refuses good enough.
We choose great.
And that matters for the students we teach, the communities we serve, the state we call home.
Because a state that has a great university—particularly a great public flagship land-grant university—has opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
And when that great university is the University of Tennessee, it also has the Volunteer spirit, a passion for service and commitment that drives not only what we do but how we do it.
In June, the director of the National Science Foundation visited campus for the kickoff of Team TN.
We are leading a coalition of more than 100 organizations across the state, including industry partners and every technical school, community college, and university.
Team TN is focused on making our state a global leader in the $2 trillion transportation industry, and we are a finalist for a large NSF grant to be able to do that.
This was a big moment for us to showcase our research strengths, our faculty, and our leadership to the director of the National Science Foundation.
While he was here, the director said what we’re doing in Tennessee is a model for how to build the innovation capacity we need across the country.
This is possible because the strengths of our university aligned with the resources of our state and the needs of our country.
What a powerful recipe for creating opportunity—one that leverages both who we are and what we’re great at.
This is the blueprint for a new kind of land-grant university, one that partners, leads, shares, and strives for impact.
Earlier this year, Provost John Zomchick went before the Board of Trustees to ask their approval for our first major academic restructuring in half a century.
It sounds bureaucratic, I know. But if you have seen our provost speak before—and you have, because he was just on this stage—you know he has a unique ability to command an audience.
That day, he captivated the entire room as he began to share not just the story of how we decided to launch three new academic units but the story of how these units support our heritage as Tennesseans and the future of our state.
The College of Music, the College of Emerging and Collaborative Studies, and the Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs all launched in July.
Our new College of Music will continue to produce performing musicians and music educators while also expanding to graduate the professionals who will fill the jobs that propel our state’s music industry.
Tennessee has also produced great leaders, policymakers, and public servants, none more beloved than Howard H. Baker Jr.
Senator Baker understood the importance of sincere public service, civil debate, and meaningful policy.
These are the values that undergird our new Institute of American Civics, housed in the Baker School.
Finally, leaning into our history as a destination for discovery and innovation, the College of Emerging and Collaborative Studies will be an incubator for big ideas, launch new programs in emerging fields, and forge connections across campus and into the community.
We now have 14 degree-granting colleges, and every single one of them is committed to progress and innovation.
- The College of Architecture and Design is looking to expand its downtown footprint.
- The College of Law’s innovative programs have been recognized with their ranking as the No. 24 public law school in the country.
- The College of Communication and Information is doubling down on experiential learning by bringing the Daily Beacon, WUOT, and the speech and debate team into the college.
- The College of Social Work, the College of Nursing, and the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences have forged an innovative partnership with Cherokee Health Systems.
- The College of Arts and Sciences has appointed three new divisional deans to elevate the work of the social sciences, natural sciences, math, humanities, and the arts.
- The Haslam College of Business is launching an online master’s in cybersecurity, training workers to fill a growing industry need.
Last year, I told you we had an opportunity to reach nearly 1 million Tennesseans who have some college credit but no degree.
We have assembled a team that is hard at work to build the online learning infrastructure that will allow us to reach learners where they are, removing barriers and creating new opportunities.
This will be a game-changer—not just for the students who enroll in our programs but their families, their communities, employers, and our state.
Last week, I met with our external advisory council, a collection of brilliant leaders in innovation and technology from around the country who advise our research division. I shared with them some of the same accomplishments I just shared with you.
They were excited by our trajectory. They told me to stay hungry—don’t become satisfied.
As we think about our future, it could be tempting to say, “This is difficult, and we’re OK with good enough.”
I am asking us instead to say, “This is difficult, and we choose great.”
The decisions of the past are paying off today. And the decisions we make today will pay off in the future.
Five years ago, we invested $6 million to hire a quantum science faculty cluster. Today, every faculty member in that cluster is part of a new prestigious $18 million NSF grant.
Almost four years ago, we stood up a new Division of Student Success. Today, thanks to faculty and staff across campus, our students are persisting at rates we have never seen before.
Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated a new partnership between the College of Nursing and UT Medical Center.
With a new state-of-the-art facility at Cherokee Farm, we will graduate 100 more nurses every year who will work at the medical center and help alleviate our local nursing shortage.
Two weeks ago, in that high school library in Nashville, I told those future Volunteers that there is a place for each of them here.
I told them that the University of Tennessee is special. It’s what I tell everyone.
At baseball games and volleyball matches, I tell our fans that our momentum in athletics is matched by our momentum in academics.
At meetings with industry and community partners, I tell them about our expertise and commitment to collaboration that solves problems.
At move-in, I talk to parents about our unique student experience and support provided by our outstanding student life team.
And at meetings with other university chancellors, I tell them how we’re redefining the modern public land-grant university.
We have an incredible story, and it’s time to tell it boldly.
That’s why I’m asking you to become a storyteller, too.
Every person on this campus should take credit for our momentum.
The list of accomplishments I shared, and so many more—those successes belong to all of us.
So when you’re at neighborhood block parties or your kids’ soccer games, when you’re at conferences or community events, tell people about what you are helping achieve at our university.
Tell them about our important research, our bright students, our talented faculty, our dedicated staff, our strong partnerships, and our growing momentum.
Tell them that we have chosen great.
Tell them that the University of Tennessee is on the rise.