Adaptability in Uncertain Times

2019 freshman class photo infront of

When we began work on our 2019 annual report, all was well in the world. We were celebrating the 225th anniversary of the university, the history of liberal arts, and the impact our college has on teaching, research, and creative activity at UT. Our humanities faculty were planning the Baldwin Delaney symposium, funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. Faculty and staff in the college were getting ready to launch our apocalypse semester, featuring the Visions of the End exhibit in the McClung Museum and courses designed to discover the breadth and depth of intellectual revelation as it applies to history, science, the arts, and human interactions. Little did we know how real our apocalypse semester would turn out to be… for us and for our global community.

Today, we find ourselves in uncharted territory, much like the explorers of the past our students learn about in their history courses. We are uncertain of what the near future holds for the delivery of higher education. We are discovering new ways to continue our mission of providing an excellent education that cultivates a lifelong passion for intellectual inquiry and an understanding of diverse human cultures that is necessary to become engaged global citizens. Through it all, we continue to stress the importance of adaptability and critical analytical skills, which we need more than ever in today’s changing landscape.

This spring, instead of taking a break to unplug, unwind, and recharge, our faculty spent the week of spring break making the transition to delivering all their courses completely online to students scattered across the country. The race to complete this transition was challenging, especially for our faculty who had never delivered classes in this fashion. The transition included getting everyone a pro version of Zoom. We sent laptops and hot spots to hundreds of students and dozens of faculty and staff. We held our collective breath on the first Monday after break, hoping that Zoom would not crash and students and faculty would be able to connect. It felt like a miracle at the end of that first week when everything worked, and as I write this, we are finishing the last week of the semester.

There were some bumps, but both students and faculty feel relief and pride in making it across the finish line. Indeed, attendance in classes has never been so high! Nearly all faculty comment on how eager the students are to see and interact with each other and with them at every class. The students miss being on campus, and like the faculty, have found the transition one that requires quite a lot of additional work. We are working hard now to deliver as much of our summer curriculum as possible online and preparing a variety of scenarios for fall delivery, not knowing yet whether we will be able to have students back on campus.

While we may be scattered across the country, we are still guided by our core values that define the Volunteer spirit and permeate who we are, what we do, and our approach to living and learning at UT and beyond. I am proud to be a member of the Volunteer family and am constantly amazed at the compassion and support we provide for each other in our new online learning and teaching environment. From faculty members who have transformed the way they share knowledge to our students who have adapted to a new college experience, we have worked together to meet the challenges brought on by the emergence of the novel coronavirus.

As we reflect on the first 225 years of this university and think about the next 225 years of education in Tennessee and beyond, one thing will remain true – our mission as a land grant institution. I suspect that what happened here in spring 2020 will live on in memory, as does the closure of the campus on the hill during the Civil War or the loss of young men during two world wars. We are proud to educate citizens of our state, enhance the culture, and make a difference – that Volunteer difference – in people’s lives through research and service. Thank you for the role you are playing today in our history, our story, and our future.


Theresa M. Lee
Dean, College of Arts & Sciences