A Philosophy of Leadership

John Nolt

John Nolt

Professor, Department of Philosophy
B.A, M.A., Ph.D., philosophy, Ohio State University
At UT Knoxville since 1978

“I actually started at UT Knoxville in a non–tenure track position, filling in for a professor who was on leave. I eventually took part in a national search for a position here and was selected. I fell in love with this area, especially the mountains, quickly.”

From his office on the 8th floor of McClung Tower on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, John Nolt has a stunning view, looking out over Fort Sanders and Sharp’s Ridge toward the Cumberland Plateau.

But on a clear winter day when the smoggy air has subsided, he’s most excited to show a visitor to his office the tiny specks of white on a tall hill to the northwest—the spinning blades on the turbines of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Buffalo Mountain wind farm.

For a man whose career as a professor has been based on building understanding and knowledge of how humanity affects its home planet, it’s appropriate that he’s able to find that sign of sustainability on the horizon.

Nolt, a professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences, has served as the president of the UT Knoxville Faculty Senate this year, and in that role he’s helped lead the campus through some of its most trying times in recent memory.

Along the way, though, he’s never lost sight of his role as an educator and leader in the college, as well as UT Knoxville’s role as a leader in campus sustainability, even in the face of budget cuts and leadership changes.

“Well, of course, as my term approached, we all had no idea that the huge issue we would face this year was coming, namely the tremendous budget cut,” said Nolt. “By the time of our fall retreat, I was saying to the senate, ‘Look, folks, we’ve got much bigger problems ahead. We need to focus on how to be constructive.’ ”

What he found in the midst of the crises, though, was an opportunity to help advance his goals for making the campus sustainable. Nolt had set his sights on advocating for a new office of campus sustainability and enacting a comprehensive energy policy, both of which happened before the end of 2008.

“I think it became clear to people on campus in all roles—faculty members, students, administrators—that these sustainability initiatives had a benefit beyond the environmental imperative,” Nolt said. “An environmentally sustainable campus is more fiscally sustainable, as well.”

One of the greatest challenges facing anyone who takes on the presidency of the Faculty Senate is balancing faculty responsibilities with the demands of the office. For Nolt it meant being willing to set aside his research and writing efforts for the year.

It was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

“There are times within a person’s career to focus on one thing and times to focus on another. And I’m eager to get back to focusing on the teaching, the research,” said Nolt. “I see it as a matter of temporal sequencing. During this period, research is off the table, and it’s back this summer. I’ve had to cut back on teaching, but I’ll get back in it.”

As Nolt tells it, the story of his involvement in the Faculty Senate began with his service on the Committee for the Campus Environment, which he co-chairs with Mary English, a member of the research staff in the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment. He had been skeptical of the ability of the senate to be a force for change, but conversations with former senate president Candace White helped convince him of the administration’s commitment to including faculty members in making key decisions.

That conviction helped persuade him to seek leadership positions in the senate, up to and including the presidency.

“For much of my time here, I believed that the faculty senate was ineffective,” Nolt said. “But [White] wore me down. Finally I said, ‘All right, I’ll do it. If this is the way to get things done, I’ll do it.’ I got involved.”

As a professor of philosophy, Nolt is focused on environmental ethics and on the ways that decision-makers can apply logic to the choices before them so as to consider the global implications of their decisions.

Nolt said that in some respects his experience as senate president has allowed him to put some of his ethical theory into practice in ways he might never have expected. More important, he will be able to bring this experience to bear on the way he works with students in the courses he teaches.

“There are ethical theories I teach in the classroom, but to teach ethics per se, you’ve got to be an example for others,” said Nolt. “You’ve got to show people that there’s a better way to do things, and we can’t do that on this campus unless we adopt a sustainable practice. I really see this as an extension of my teaching. If UT doesn’t practice these things, my talking about it doesn’t seem to carry much force.”

While Nolt says he will continue to pursue his goals for a sustainable campus through the remainder of his term, he also is realistic about the priorities he must set. In spite of the coming infusion of federal stimulus money, his highest priority remains to conserve faculty positions in future budget cuts. But Nolt is also concerned about the potential implications faculty cuts can have on the student experience and the overall quality of the university.

“Ultimately,” he said, “It comes down to students. Are we going to keep the faculty we need to provide students with the instruction they need and maintain the quality of education we’ve built? Really, that is the highest agenda item I’ve got.”

Even with his return to teaching and research within the college, Nolt won’t be able to avoid difficult political decisions. He was recently elected president of Tennessee University Faculty Senates, or TUFS, the statewide organization of faculty senates in the UT system and Tennessee Board of Regents institutions.

What lies ahead? Bills have recently been filed in the legislature calling for, among other things, a complete reorganization of the system of higher education in the state. That means Nolt will once more advocate for faculty inclusion in making decisions on the major issues facing colleges and universities.

One thing remains true: Along the way, Nolt will continue to keep an eye on that sustainable future for higher education that lies just over the next hill.

—Jay Mayfield