2021 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.
John Zomchick: Good morning. And welcome, friends, colleagues, students, and university guests. I speak for the chancellor’s cabinet today when I tell you that we’re thrilled to have you join us for Chancellor Donde Plowman’s third-annual flagship address. The flagship address is a new tradition that Chancellor Plowman started with her Investiture in 2019. She saw this annual event as an opportunity for us to gather as a campus community, along with our partners and those whom we serve to reflect on our successes and to look at the path ahead.
Last year, the speech was delivered virtually because of the unique challenges we faced during this pandemic. While we know that the threat from COVID-19 is not over, readily available vaccines and an indoor mask policy have made it possible for us to safely hold this event in person today. Following the chancellor’s address, we ask that you join us outside for a reception featuring foods from across Tennessee. There will be folks outside the auditorium directing you to the celebration on the plaza.
Throughout the last year, at the same time our campus was navigating the COVID-19 crisis, we were also crafting a new strategic vision. Creating a shared vision for the future of our university was something Chancellor Plowman prioritized from the time she stepped foot on this campus. And I’m honored to have chaired that effort with my colleague associate dean and chancellor’s professor Suzie Allard. Drafting a new strategic vision is no small undertaking. We knew from the beginning that if our vision was to reflect our university, we would need input from across our institution. We engaged a consultant to help us focus our task, and convened a large working group to begin the process. We started with brainstorming, then we drafted mission, vision, and goal statements. We took these drafts to the campus, held feedback meetings, and refined the documents. More than 800 people across our campus gave their time to help develop this vision. It’s been a long, and at times, arduous process, but I am proud of the work that we have done together, and the goals that we’ve laid out. In your program, you will find our five goals. They represent our hope for the future, this great university, and for this great state of Tennessee, as well as our promise to one another, to our students, and to all the people we serve.
Thank you for being part of this process and for being valuable members and supporters of our Volunteer family. And now it is my pleasure to introduce our chancellor, Dr. Donde Plowman.
Donde Plowman: We’re so lucky to have John Zomchick as our chief academic leader. I’d just like to give another round of applause for John. Hard job being provost and he does it great. So thank you, John, for that introduction and for reminding all of us of the work, the commitment, and the collaboration that has gone into crafting our new strategic vision.
I am honored today to be with all of you, and to have the opportunity to reflect on where we have been as a university, where we are, and to look ahead to the opportunities in our future. Every day I am inspired by the Volunteers that I encounter on campus and beyond our campus, they generously share with me their stories, their concerns, their ambitions. And it is a privilege to lead this university, and I’m grateful every single day to be part of this thriving community.
Just last month, I was in Neyland Stadium with about 10,000 first-year and second-year students for the annual Torch Night celebration. A celebration that’s been around for almost 100 years. As we neared the end of the program, the evening had grown dark and the students held up their glow sticks, which was representing the torch we had just passed to them, and in unison they said:
“I accept this torch
And pledge to represent my university and my fellow Volunteers
With honesty, with compassion, and with courage.
I commit to stepping forward in moments big and small,
To serve and to lead
And to light the way for others.”
That’s a big ask, isn’t it? For 18- and 19-year-olds to bring their best selves forward day in and day out no matter the circumstances. To summon the courage to lead others to do the same.
But this new generation of students is asking for that responsibility. More and more students are choosing the University of Tennessee because of the importance we place on values, service, and leadership. They want to be part of something meaningful.
The pledge is a commitment to one another and to the rest of our university community. It is a pledge our students take, but it is a promise we all share.
In my time at UT, I have seen that promise in action—in moments big and small, and in the face of obstacles that seemed insurmountable.
Two years ago – hard to imagine it was just 2 years ago – I had just started this job and had set my sights on listening and learning as much as I could from as many people as I could. Possibilities were everywhere, and I met so many talented and dedicated Volunteers who wanted to dream big and do things that matter.
That December, we began the first bit of the hard work of creating a new strategic vision for the university— a place for us all to dream and do together.
But that excitement for the future quickly turned to uncertainty. By March – you know the story – our campus was empty, and the world felt totally unfamiliar.
Each of us was trying to make the best decisions we could with the best information that we had.
It took time. It took trial and error; trust and communication. It took patience and resilience. It took identifying our values for leading with courage and then holding ourselves to them.
We would keep our students on track to graduation. We would keep our community healthy and hopeful, and we would act with creativity, flexibility, and compassion.
And we did.
It’s been a hard 18 months, but as we sit in this room together today, we have a clearer sense of who we are and what we’re capable of.
We also carry with us the losses we endured along the way, and they have been significant.
But through it all, we never stopped looking for moments of joy. Nor did we stop delivering for our students and the people that we serve in the state of Tennessee. We leaned into our values, and we did remarkable things together—focused, resilient, and with a generous spirit for one another.
Let me remind you of just some of those things that we did:
We have welcomed back-to-back record undergraduate classes, and this fall, we enrolled the largest student body in our history.
Once again, we are a national leader for Fulbright Scholars.
Forbes named our campus a top 10 employer in the state.
Sixteen of our twenty athletic teams competed in post-season competition last spring.
More than 51,000 alumni and friends gave back to the university, setting a record for student scholarships.
We received our second grant in three years from the National Endowment for the Humanities—known as NEH—making us a top institution.
We have continued to grow and develop important research partnerships with Volkswagen, Eastman, the U.S. Army, and AT&T.
If you open your program to the back pages, you will see just some of the facts and figures we use to demonstrate the strength of our university.
These achievements—and so many more—should make all of us proud.
But this list of achievements is not who we are. It is not what sets us apart.
Our spirit. Our leadership. Our courage. Our confidence in the values that guide us. Our willingness to lean into those values in support and service of others. That is what sets us apart. It is infused in everything we do—how we approach our work, our studies, our research.
We are not a great university because we are a national leader in NEH awards. We receive NEH grants because faculty like Amy Elias, Hilary Havens, and Amir Sadovnik had the courage to think big—across department and college boundaries—and to find solutions that exist at the intersection of their disciplines.
We’re not a great university because we have top-rated programs like supply chain, forensic anthropology, and nuclear engineering. We have these great programs because leaders like Chad Autrey, Dawnie Steadman, and Wes Hines, and others have recruited world-renowned experts to come here and find innovative ways to advance their fields and educate our students.
We are not a great university because we have a lot of students who earn Fulbright awards. We have a lot of Fulbright scholars because we are a great university.
Because students such as Annabel Large from Jonesborough, Tennessee, a town with a population of 5,000 people, she came to her state’s flagship university to study chemical engineering and to intern at Oak Ridge National Lab. And because here, she found support and guidance from advisors, professors, and mentors, who inspired her to apply and helped her earn a Fulbright.
See, it’s not just what we do that makes the University of Tennessee great. It is how we do it.
It was true before I got here, true through this pandemic, and true during the process of developing our strategic vision.
When COVID first hit, we set our work on the strategic visioning aside. But as we figured out how to do two things at once—manage through the current crisis which is still in front of us, and at the same time still look forward—we discovered something.
What we were learning about ourselves and our capabilities—that we could pivot and try new things—that was influencing how we thought about our future and what was possible. Those values that we identified early on to help us get through COVID—creativity, flexibility, compassion—you see them throughout this vision.
Our vision statement reflects the aspirations of our community. And it is this:
A world enriched by our IDEAS, improved through ACTION, and INSPIRED by the Volunteer spirit of service and leadership.
When our strategic vision developed, we included five goals that really make up the vision. I want to tell you a few stories that illustrate these goals and the opportunities that exist to elevate this university.
I’m teaching a First Year Studies class again this fall. I love doing it, and all my students this year are freshmen in the Herbert College of Agriculture. We meet on Wednesdays at 5 pm.
About two weeks into the semester, the students learned that one of their classmates was having a hard time getting to their 6 o’clock class clear across campus from our classroom in the beautiful Morgan Hall. They took a vote and agreed we should relocate to the humanities building, a much closer location for this one student.
It’s a small example, but these students have already shown themselves to be engaged, to be thoughtful, and to be compassionate, and to be problem solvers.
One of the goals in our new strategic vision is to ensure that all students have a unifying Volunteer Experience.
We are working tirelessly across the campus to create a one-of-a-kind experience for every single new student, where they have the resources they need, the support they deserve, and the opportunities to find and follow their passions.
We are already making progress with programs like first-year studies, like strengths-based coaching, and Vol Success Teams. We’re preparing students for life and career through research opportunities, study abroad, service learning, internships and co-ops.
As part of our strengths-based coaching approach, every new undergraduate student for the last two years has taken a strengths assessment. If you meet a first- or second-year student, ask them what their top five strengths are. They should be able to tell you.
But the top strength across this year’s class is a strength called “restorative”. A Restorative means these students, people who have it as a top strength, they like to fix things—they see problems and they want to solve them. This generation of college students looks at the world around them and says, “you know, this is good, but we can do better.”
They are here at UT because they know Volunteers share that drive to lead and to serve. And it’s up to us to give them the tools—the education, the mentorship, the opportunities—to solve the problems they see.
During Torch Night, Seth Lagerhausen was chosen to accept the torch on behalf of the new incoming class. When Vice Provost Amber Williams introduced him, she mentioned his six years of service in the U.S. Navy. Spontaneously, all 10,000 students in the stands began clapping and then they jumped to their feet and stood, giving Seth an ovation of gratitude. Afterward, he told Dr. Williams “wow” his fellow Vols made him feel like a hero. To which she said, “you are a hero”.
You know, that’s what we want for every student—every staff and faculty member, too. Not the standing ovation necessarily, but the feeling of belonging and acceptance.
Another one of our goals is to develop and sustain a nurturing university culture where diversity and community are enduring sources of strength.
We all have a responsibility to ensure our colleagues and peers feel like they belong here. Standing up for others can be such a small action. But when a stadium full of your peers do it, it can have a big impact.
Vol is a Verb is a commitment to act in moments big and small.
When we say it’s the people of this university that make it great, we mean it’s all the people of this university. We are better because of the experience, the perspectives, the ideas that each and every one of you bring to the table every day.
A few weeks ago, I met with executives from Volkswagen at our research park at Cherokee Farm. I shared with them how we see our research as a path to creating a more just, prosperous, and sustainable future for everyone.
They loved those words. The entire room was visibly moved by this idea and eager to help make this vision come to life through our partnership.
This is another one of our goals. To conduct research that makes life and lives better in Tennessee and beyond.
Engineering Professor Dayakar Penumadu and his team at VW’s innovation hub are developing composites that will make vehicles lighter and stronger, so they use less fuel and have a smaller environmental impact.
Volkswagen produces more than 9 million cars a year. They are one of the most technologically advanced companies in the world. Our university, our faculty, our graduate students are contributing to their innovation.
The University of Tennessee is a destination for advanced manufacturing and materials. We have 150 faculty whose research and expertise touch this field, and we have unmatched resources, facilities, and capabilities.
We are rising to the challenges identified by the federal government to Build Back Better, and working with our partners at the Tennessee Valley Authority, the East Tennessee Development District, and Oak Ridge National Lab. Together, we will create new industries and new jobs, and we will prepare Tennesseans for lifelong careers in our innovation economy.
So from understanding the core science to finding new technologies and then translating those technologies to solve problems—we are building a more just, prosperous, and sustainable future. That’s how we do it.
Over the summer, I drove to Morgan County, which is about an hour northwest of Knoxville, for the ribbon cutting of a new bridge.
At first glance, it didn’t look like much—just a small bridge in a rural town on the plateau. But this is a smart bridge, a smart bridge like a smart TV, a smart bridge made of an entirely new material created by our faculty and our graduate students. It’s designed to be stronger than steel, easier to maintain, and embedded with sensors that provide real-time information on the stress the bridge is experiencing.
This project was the culmination of years of collaboration and research—not just on how to build a bridge, but inventing the next generation of materials and manufacturing processes.
As I stood there for that ribbon cutting, I saw the local officials and residents who were excited about the good that this bridge was going to bring to their community. I listened as Professor Penumadu—yes the same Professor Penumadu leading the research with VW—explaining in language, everyday language, that even I could understand what his team had built for this bridge. I saw the students who worked on this project, beaming with pride and recognition that their research can have a real impact on real communities.
There are tens of thousands of bridges across Tennessee and around the country that need repair, or they need to be replaced, and our faculty and students are creating a new model for how to do that.
This is an example, just one example, of what it means to be a modern land-grant university—to connect with every Tennessean and with communities around the world, inspiring future Volunteers to join us. This goal is central to our mission, it is central to who we are.
Every day our university connects with people in so many ways.
We connect through our research, which impacts lives.
Through the education that we provide our students and the difference it makes for them and their families.
We connect through our extension agents who build relationships with Tennesseans every day in every single county.
And we connect through initiatives like the Tennessee Riverline project, which started as a student project, a student idea, turned into a 652-mile trail, riverline trail, of ways to improve life in communities across three different states.
We are already doing the work of a modern land-grant university. But I also see the potential for so much more. There are endless possibilities that we haven’t even imagined yet.
Now, if we’re going to realize the potential of these four goals I just talked about, we have to be honest with ourselves about what is holding us back.
When we have a sprawling statewide campus of more than 30,000 students, 9,000 faculty and staff, made up of hundreds of academic departments and administrative units, it is hard to be nimble. We all know that. Rules and guardrails exist to keep everyone and everything moving forward in the same direction, but they can also create bureaucracy that can be a barrier.
As we’ve seen over the last two years, there are times when we must be flexible. Sometimes we must change course mid-stride, and that’s hard for big organizations like universities to do.
Creating a culture of collaboration, agility, and innovation is about removing barriers to success and empowering people to make the changes we need to pursue our goals. It’s about examining our structures and our processes—some of which have been in place for decades—and asking: “Is this still the best way to do this?”
We’ve already started some of that work with our new budget allocation model and our academic structures working group. This goal will identify other ways that we can make collaboration easier.
This may actually be our hardest goal—pushing ourselves to continuously look for ways to make our processes and our policies simpler. So let’s keep asking: “Is this step necessary? Is this rule moving us forward or is it stalling us out? Are we making it easier or are we making it more difficult to collaborate?”
So those are our five goals:
Cultivate the Volunteer Experience,
conduct research that makes life and lives better in Tennessee and beyond,
ensure a culture where Vol is a Verb,
make ourselves nimble and adaptable,
and embody the modern land-grant university.
Next month, I’m going to present our vision and these goals to the Board of Trustees for approval, along with many details and metrics we will use to define and measure success. And these details are an important part of this work and will guide our planning for years to come.
But at the end of the day, what I want our trustees—and what I want you—to take away is not the definition of individual metrics, but the transformational change we will make together through this work. I want all of us to be inspired by the potential of this university and all the good we want to do in the world.
Before our students graduate, they attend a final Torch Night ceremony and together, they recite the same pledge they took their first year.
But this time, they pledge to continue to light the way wherever they go as proud alumni. Just imagine a world full of Volunteers poised to create things and so eager to solve problems and fix things. Volunteers who’ve honed their strengths and deepened their commitment to change because of what they learned and experienced at the University of Tennessee.
I want all of us, every day, to be inspired by the same pledge our students take and to recommit ourselves, starting today, to the covenant we have with the people and the communities we serve.
To step forward in moments big and small,
To serve and to lead,
And to light the way for others.