2022 Flagship Address
Donde Plowman: Thank you all for being here. Thank you, John, for that kind introduction. And thank you to Ruoyun for sharing her incredible talent here today.
I’m so grateful to be with all of you in this magnificent recital hall to get the opportunity to reflect on our achievements and to look forward to the future.
It’s been just three years since I stood in front of you at that first flagship address and talked about what I thought it meant to be a Volunteer and why we must have courage to take risks, courage to care, and courage to lead. I told you then that we were standing at a pivotal moment of extraordinary opportunity.
We actually had no idea just how pivotal and extraordinary those last three years would be.
At every moment, through every challenge and every opportunity, Volunteers have stepped forward. We are a university on the rise.
Record enrollments. Rising persistence rates. Unprecedented state funding. Historic alumni giving. Record research expenditures. Faculty recognitions, student honors, and athletic records on and off the field.
You should be proud. I am so proud.
Three years ago, I stood in front of you and I said this: Momentum alone will not carry us into the future we want. That’s just as true today as it was then.
There are at least four major disruptions across the national landscape of higher education that demand our attention.
First, the number of college-bound students across the country is in decline. Between 2019 and 2021 alone, just those two years, colleges and universities lost more than a million students.
We are tackling this issue by offering a highly valued student-focused experience. Our quality academic programs are complemented by our Volunteer values of service and leadership.
We have launched success initiatives for all students, and we’ve established intentional programs to support historically underserved populations—first-generation students, student veterans, and students of color. Thanks to the dedication of our faculty and staff, other universities are now looking at us for innovative approaches to student success.
We are making the Volunteer experience appealing to more students and creating more pathways for them to achieve it. Throughout the state and across the country, high school students, their parents, and their communities are taking notice.
Growth in the number of students seeking this experience is great for the state of Tennessee. It means more graduates to step into the new jobs that are coming to our state.
The successes we are building on now will prepare us for the demographic changes ahead. For us to keep pace with the workforce demands of the future, we must continue to increase access to a quality education and ensure that those who enroll will graduate.
Our dedication to this work across the campus, within and outside of the classrooms, is what will keep our enrollment strong and make our graduates successful.
The second major disruption is the erosion of public trust across institutions, including higher education.
Two years ago, nearly seven in 10 Americans believed that colleges and universities were having a positive effect on the country. Today that number is closer to five in 10.
There are at least two ways we can start to restore faith in higher education right here at Tennessee, while meeting the needs of people who live in this state: create more workforce-ready degree programs and expand online learning opportunities.
A broad knowledge base and critical thinking skills are an important framework for understanding the world around us. And we must continue to promote the value of a liberal arts education. Likewise, professional programs give our students both the practical skills they need to do the jobs in front of them and the perspective they need to be creative thinkers and strategic leaders.
These two things are not mutually exclusive.
Over the past year, I have visited with executives from many companies in Tennessee. I always ask them, “What do you need from our graduates?” Whether it is Nissan, AT&T, Eastman, or others—many others—the answer’s usually the same. They want knowledge and skills that actually cut across our disciplines. When I ask them if they would hire someone with a degree that combines, let’s say, data sciences, communications, and ethics, they usually say yes.
When we can add even more value to a UT degree by working across disciplines to create new kinds of programs and prepare students for new kinds of careers, we will be succeeding.
In Tennessee, nearly one million people have some college credit but no degree. We need to be bold in meeting these learners where they are and offering them the social mobility associated with a college degree.
For many living in rural communities, those who are in the military, people with full-time jobs or caretaking responsibilities, that often means online learning.
We are committed to developing more undergraduate degree options for remote students at the same high standards as our on-campus courses. We don’t have to build from the ground up. We already have valuable curriculum and expertise. We are looking to forge partnerships that can help us quickly scale our online degree programs to meet the demand that we are already seeing.
Bringing more opportunities to more students and meeting Tennessee’s workforce needs is how we will meet our land-grant mission and advance economic prosperity.
Third, changes in our economy are demanding new technologies and workforce skills.
Tennessee is positioned to become the next great American innovation hub. We have many of the ingredients for a thriving and inclusive innovation economy built on discoveries, public–private partnerships, and an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. But if our state and region are going to meet that potential, the University of Tennessee will have to be a leader in the effort.
The same forces that are pushing the need to reshape our curriculum are also challenging us to think differently about how we approach discovery, its translation into innovation, and new social and economic opportunities.
Collaboration drives innovation.
As the world gets more complicated, the solutions to some of society’s biggest, biggest challenges can be found at the intersection of the natural and social sciences, engineering, and the humanities.
We have English faculty and computing faculty now working together to create a digital humanities curriculum.
We have nursing and psychology faculty working together to understand how language skills develop in preterm newborns.
We have faculty from the Institute of Ag, chemistry, microbiology, and mechanical and biomedical engineering developing precision health solutions.
Faculty in our UT Space Institute are working across engineering and chemistry departments on modernizing the US Army.
Through our support for a thriving innovation ecosystem, we are generating more discoveries that make their way to market through startups and established organizations. We are preparing entrepreneurs for industries of the future. We are supporting promising startups. We are commercializing our research findings through industry partnerships. We must continue to invest in our people and in our infrastructure to keep building collaborative capacity for research and innovation.
This is how we will create a more just, a more prosperous, and a more sustainable future for our university community, for our state, and for our nation.
Finally, we are living through a time of great polarization and great distrust.
Last month, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that a growing share of Americans—on both sides of the aisle—they don’t just dislike the opposing political party, they dislike the people in the party.
At Tennessee’s flagship land grant university, we have an opportunity to be a leader in strengthening civic engagement and combating the polarization in our society.
The new Institute of American Civics, housed in the Baker Center, builds on the legacy of compassion and civility demonstrated by the late Tennessee statesman. This new institute will be at the forefront of our charge to strengthen the understanding of all levels of government, the political and economic forces that drive it, and how to have productive debates on pressing issues.
Earlier this month, I attended a live taping of Governors Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam’s new podcast. I watched former Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander debate and disagree about the value of the Senate filibuster. It was fascinating and really inspiring.
These conversations are a model for how we can work through our differences.
This work, of course, does not just lie with one center. We are working hard to bring a wide variety of perspectives to our campus and expose our students and our community to ideas that at times can be comforting and at other times quite challenging.
The College of Communication and Information is launching a research hub around the study of information integrity, pulling together researchers across disciplines to study a topic critically important to society and democracy.
We have a chance to show the world that restoring civility doesn’t mean shying away from tough conversations. And it doesn’t mean you’ll always agree. It means approaching these debates head-on but with humility, curiosity, and as Senator Howard Baker would say, a willingness to consider that the other person just might be right.
This is how we create a more thoughtful, compassionate, and engaged society.
So our solutions for these disruptions are supported by our strategic vision. We will meet them with the creativity, the boldness, the courage, and the leadership of Volunteers.
As chancellor, I am committed to investing the time and the resources to building the infrastructure where continued evolution is possible and new ideas are encouraged.
So here’s what I’m asking you to do.
First, connect with one another. When we connect with those around us, when we seek out different perspectives, we develop an understanding of the bigger picture and greater meaning around our own work.
Second, bring your ideas forward. So what’s in the way of success? Where are needs not being met? How can we solve these challenges? When everybody brings their ideas to the table, more solutions are possible.
And finally, listen to one another. Engage with the ideas that come forward, even if they’re not yours. Have robust, respectful conversations about these ideas. Examine them, refine them, make them better.
The University of Tennessee is full of some of the greatest thinkers and doers, innovators and leaders that I have ever encountered. That’s how I know that we will not only meet the challenges ahead but we will embrace them and blaze new trails together.
At the beginning of the semester, I gave a lecture to a class on leadership in the law school, the College of Law. We talked about the importance of being willing to act and the courage that sometimes is needed to step forward and act.
It was a fun, lively conversation. And as you would expect from a roomful of future attorneys, they had a few questions. One young—you can appreciate that—one young man asked something that has stuck with me.
He wanted to know when is it hardest for people to have a willingness to act.
I told him the same thing I will tell all of you. I find it’s always hardest to act when you feel like you are acting alone.
We are not alone in this.
Volunteers support one another. They challenge one another. They embolden one another. They embolden one another to act with conviction and treat one another with compassion.
Together we are on the rise. We have amazing momentum. Let’s use it to push even further—to be bolder, to be more creative, to have more courage. To set new standards for how universities meet the needs of those we serve.
We’re the Volunteers. Let’s light the way.