Interview with the Chancellor: Believing in People

Chancellor Jimmy CheekHG:    Do you have a set of goals yet for the university?

JC:    My goals are what I call my “strategic priorities.” I’m visiting all the colleges and talking about these priorities now. I’ve been telling the faculty of each college that these are only preliminary priorities, and I’ve been asking for feedback. So far, the feedback I’ve received is “Sounds good to me; let’s do it.”

My number-one priority is to improve the undergraduate and graduate education experience. Education is first among the core enterprises of the university. We need to do everything we can to improve classes—however you define improvement—to encourage students to participate in international and extracurricular activities and to help them with internships and experiential learning.

The second priority is to enhance university research, scholarship, and outreach. These are also part of our core mission; they’re essential if we are to continue to be the state’s flagship public research university.

Third, we have to build more relationships and partnerships with other organizations and agencies. I’m particularly interested in furthering our relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Another strategic priority is to enhance globalization, diversity, and sustainability. Our students should get a global perspective of the fields they study. They also need to participate in more study-abroad opportunities. When we look back 3 to 5 years from now, we want to see significantly more diversity in our students, faculty, and staff. And we want to engender in our students an appreciation for what sustainability means; it’s critical that we make this planet more sustainable.

We also need to boost private endowments. Private money allows us to do things we ordinarily couldn’t do. We’ve done quite well in the Campaign for Tennessee, but we need to continue to support initiatives that will enhance the student experience and help us recruit and retain great faculty members.

Given the current economic condition, this next priority may seem pie-in-the-sky, but we need to secure more resources to aid our mission. We have an exceptionally qualified student body and a superb faculty, but everywhere I look, we have major constraints of resources.

We also need to improve the campus infrastructure. Some parts of the campus are in fine condition, but other parts desperately need renovation. Some buildings need to come down, and others need to go up.

While we have an excellent student body, we won’t be the kind of university we want to be unless we continue to recruit and retain stellar faculty talent. I’m very impressed with our faculty. At lunch the other day I met a young woman who came here just 6 months ago. She’s fantastic. She’s doing the kind of work that will attract attention, and other universities will come after her. Our challenge will be to retain her and others like her.

My final strategic priority is to increase recognition of the faculty, students, alumni, and staff. I want us to receive more Goldwater awards. I want us to have more Fulbrights. I want more of our faculty members to be recognized as fellows in their societies. I want more of our students to win regional and national awards. I want to grant more distinguished alumni awards and honorary doctorates for our amazing alumni.

That’s my list. If we can take care of the core enterprises—education, research, and outreach—and build on the others, in 5 years we’ll be a better place. I believe we can reach these goals.

HG:    What do you think needs to be fixed first?

JC:    I’m not sure fixed is the right word, but I think our most immediate priority is our budget. We have to find $25.5 million in budget cuts. And we have a plan to do that. In addition to the budget cuts, however, we have $10 million in new fixed costs—costs we didn’t have to carry this year but will have to carry next year. Three-quarters of those fixed costs are for utilities. Tenure and promotion raises, the increased cost of graduate-student health insurance, and the Baker Center are also part of those new fixed costs.

I’ve been asked if the stimulus package that President Obama recently approved will help, and I think the answer is yes. But remember that the stimulus package is for only 2 years, while the new costs we’re talking about are recurring costs; they won’t go away. We’ll use the stimulus money as much as we can to alleviate some immediate concerns, but those fixed costs will be back at the end of 2 years, so we’ll have to use that money strategically.

As we go through the budget cuts, as proposed by the deans and approved by the provost, we’ll have 7 percent less capacity to teach next year—we’ll offer 7 percent fewer courses. We didn’t offer enough courses this year, so next year it will be even harder for students to get the courses they want, especially those courses that are already bottlenecks.

The good news is that though we’re taking a 13.9-percent cut in state appropriations while facing $10 million more in new fixed costs, we’re reducing our instructional capacity by only 7 percent. That’s phenomenal.

Right now we need to get the faculty and students to focus on the things we’re doing well and not on budget cuts. The cut in appropriations is out of our control. Let’s concentrate instead on what we have and how we can use what we have to serve the needs of this state.

The faculty and students have a can-do attitude; I know we’ll continue to provide an excellent education for the young men and women who come here. It will be more of a struggle for our faculty—who will have to do more with less—but I’m confident they are committed to succeeding.

These budget figures I’ve been discussing, by the way, are predicated on the university getting a 9‑percent tuition increase.

HG:    Nine percent? Is that guaranteed?

JC:    No, it won’t be decided until the June Board of Trustees meeting. I don’t know if it will be approved. Our challenge between now and then is to tell our story about the good things happening on this campus. If we don’t get a tuition increase, the cuts will be deeper. We need to help the citizens of the state, the legislature, the governor, and the board understand the importance of allowing us the 9 percent.

Nine percent would increase each student’s tuition less than $250 a semester. Those students who come from families that can’t afford an additional $250 will get scholarships to pay the difference. We will protect those who can’t pay.

During the past year UT Knoxville fell about 10 percent in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Our current rank is 108. What would it take to bring our rank up into, say, the 80s?

Actually, the university is ranked fairly high. It’s 51st among public universities, and some programs, such as the colleges of business and law, are ranked much higher.

I would prefer us to focus on those things that we believe will make us better. Our first obligation is to decide what we want to be—not what will improve our ranking. The objectives we set for ourselves should make sense for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any objective we might set just to increase our rankings I would consider a false objective.

If we pursue those things that are right for us, and they increase our ranking on the U.S. News list, that’s good. If they don’t, but they are still the right measures for us, they are the things we need to be working on.

HG:    Can you tell us something about your life outside work?

JC:    Well, I love the mountains. I love hiking in the mountains. Three years ago, my wife and I built a mountain cabin in north Georgia, about 30 minutes from Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia. It’s about 2½ hours from here. We can easily drive there for a weekend. It’s about 7 hours from Gainesville, so we didn’t get there on weekends when I was at Florida.

We enjoy traveling. We enjoy our toddling granddaughter, Abigail. I play golf, poorly, about twice a year, but I enjoy it. I used to play once a week with a regular foursome. We played at night on a lighted course because we didn’t want anyone to see us.

I enjoy gardening but haven’t done it since I moved; it takes too much time. I also enjoy basketball and football.

HG:    So what about the latest Florida–Tennessee men’s basketball game? Were you happy with the result?

JC:    I’m a Vol fan, so yes, I was happy. I also got to meet Bruce Pearl and the team, and I was very happy about that. Next year when we play football in Gainesville, I hope to go, and I’ll be cheering for the Volunteers. I’d like to go to two or three national championships in the next few years.

One of the highlights of my career occurred the first week I was here, and that was watching Pat Summitt get her thousandth win. I got to congratulate her on ESPN. She’s just extraordinary.

HG:    Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JC:    A couple of years ago, the incoming freshmen at Florida had to read Mountains beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. It’s the story of an American medical doctor, Paul Farmer, a member of the faculty at Harvard, who spends most of his time running a clinic in Haiti. It’s excellent, and I’m going to recommend it for our freshmen.

One day, Farmer spent an entire day walking to get to two families so he could treat them. This is a Harvard professor who could have been back in the comforts of Cambridge or out talking to “important” people! What a role model for our students! This is university outreach at its best!

Recently, in Costa Rica, I became friends with a man who knows Farmer. We talked quite a bit, and we talked about Farmer and what he’s accomplished. Afterward, my new friend went to Haiti, saw Farmer, and got him to sign a copy of Mountains beyond Mountains for me. He also asked Farmer, “If Jimmy can get the freshmen at Tennessee to read this book in their reading program, would you go there to speak?” Farmer said yes. So now I have another goal.

I have great admiration for people like Farmer who overcome obstacles and have the drive to achieve what they want to achieve regardless of what others might say or think.

People are amazing. They do amazing things. Our faculty here in Knoxville is amazing, and our students will do amazing things.

I believe in people.