The Lee Legacy

After 11 years leading UT’s largest and most diverse college, Theresa Lee will step down from the Herbert Family Dean position on June 30.

Lee, who turns 70 this year, said the time is right for change.

She recalls sage advice from a former colleague on his decision to retire: “You know when you don’t have the fire in your belly you had when you were young, and you need to move on.”

As dean, Lee has overseen 22 departments, nine interdisciplinary programs, and eight college-based research centers. The job, she said, has been “an adventure of a lifetime.”

“We are deeply grateful for the decade of leadership that Dean Lee provided for the College of Arts and Sciences,” said Provost John Zomchick. “Her commitment and dedication have paved the way for substantial growth and development within the college and outstanding achievements in research, teaching, and service. Dean Lee has also been instrumental in promoting the ideals of a liberal arts education and their lifelong benefits for students.”

More Students, Growth in Research & Giving

Under Lee’s leadership, undergraduates seeking majors and minors in the college rose from 8,000 to 10,500. New academic programs were started, including neuroscience, cinema studies, and sustainability. Africana Studies became a department.

The Natalie Haslam Music Center, Strong Hall, and the Mossman Building were built. Other buildings saw significant renovations. New research centers opened, and interdisciplinary work increased.

The college’s research funding proposals tripled, and new awards doubled from $15 to $30 million per year.

“One of Terri’s great contributions has been the strengthening of the research productivity of the faculty. She did this through consistently focusing on research excellence during hiring, the tenure process, and retention of faculty,” said Christine Boake, former associate dean for research and facilities.

College fundraising increased from $7 million per year to more than $20 million per year. 

Assistant Vice Chancellor for Advancement Andrew Sheehy worked closely with Lee as the college’s executive director of development.

“She was a partner in the work. She traveled extensively with me and the team, and her willingness to do that helped move the needle quite a bit,” he said, adding that Lee was good at honing in on a potential donor’s passion and linking that to a college need.

“Every donor was not a million-dollar donor. She was willing to engage and meet with everyone,” he said. “She’s very down to earth. She connected well with people.”

Michael Dennis (PhD botany ‘76), a partner in an environmental consulting firm in Florida, has served on the Dean’s Advisory Board during Lee’s entire tenure.

“She is a leader and a scholar,” he said. “Her advocacy for the college was always paramount, seeking to promote the best learning experience for the students and providing support for the faculty.”

Charlie Penley (BS microbiology ’78), a Nashville oncologist and long-time member of the Dean’s Advisory Board, said he admires Lee’s “humanity and her strong desire to provide an opportunity for any student to achieve the benefits of a higher education at the university.”

Penley said he and Lee “came from similar socio-economic backgrounds, and we both feel strongly that our educational opportunities allowed us to become the people that we are today. I know that Dean Lee is passionate about educating young adults from all backgrounds, and I believe that this will be her legacy.”

Diversity and Leadership

Lee is proud to have brought greater diversity to the college.

“When I arrived there were five departments with no women. Now every department has more than one female faculty member, and nearly every department has faculty of color,” she said.

A self-described introvert, Lee was often among the first university leaders to issue a statement in the aftermath of a crisis. Being so out front was, at times, politically and professionally daring.

“It terrifies me to do that,” she said. “I have to screw up my courage to do such things. It’s so important; somebody has to do it. Arts and Sciences deans are people who speak up. We are the field that thinks about how the world should be and how we get there.” 

Crafting a Vision for the Future

For the past year, Lee has helped craft a future vision for the college. She supported retaining the College of Arts and Sciences, rather than dividing it into three separate colleges.

The plan calls for creating a new administrative hierarchy for the college’s major divisions: Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Associate deans assigned to each division will report to the executive dean. It’s a model used at top-ranked public flagships including the University of California, Berkeley, where Lee did her post-doc, and the University of Michigan, where she taught before coming to UT.

Former Vice Provost for Academic Affairs R.J. Hinde is serving as interim executive dean to oversee implementation of the new structure.

Lee said the plan will add much-needed additional staffing while allowing the three divisions to remain united as the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Despite the diversity of subject matter, there are common threads,” she said. “We encourage curiosity, care about seeking truth, teach how to be engaged and informed, and how to use knowledge to lead and make a difference.

“We’re teaching people to be critical thinkers and to think deeply about a variety of topics. This provides students with a way of approaching the world that can be adapted to wherever they find themselves.”

-Story by Amy Blakely