With homecoming season well underway, Tennessee campuses are awash in school spirit. But the University of Tennessee system also is in flux, with a new board of inexperienced trustees, an interim chancellor at its flagship campus in Knoxville and an interim system president with little experience in higher education.
UT president Joseph A. DiPietro will relinquish his daily duties Nov. 21 and be replaced, for an interim period of up to two years, by Randy Boyd, the recent gubernatorial candidate who lost the Republican primary to Bill Lee.
With a background in business, not academics, Boyd is nevertheless an insider – to the administration, at least. His appointment last month by the system’s Board of Trustees was interrupted by student protests, and some faculty members have expressed concerns about his experience.
But Boyd is a UT alum and a conservative who brings political capital from his ties to the Haslam administration, where he served as state commissioner of economic development and advised the governor on higher education.
Boyd’s appointment comes as UT’s campuses are implementing ambitious strategic plans against a backdrop of demands for more accountability, competition for resources against vocational schools and community colleges and tightening control by conservative state legislators who see college campuses as battlegrounds for culture wars.
And Rocky Top has run afoul of state legislators with issues involving gender-neutral language, the student-funded campus Sex Week, rescission of a football coaching hiring and the public firing of Chancellor Beverly Davenport this spring after a little more than a year on the job.
Last year, the General Assembly passed the Campus Free Speech Protection Act. Among other things, it prohibits “free speech zones,” bars institutions from rescinding invitations to campus speakers who were invited by students or faculty and prohibits institutions from denying student activity fee funding to student organizations based on viewpoint.
It also narrowly defines student-on-student harassment as conduct that is discriminatory under the law and “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” It further states professors must not devote significant classroom time to non-germane topics.
The Tennessee law, while comprehensive in its prohibited behavior, does not provide an enforcement mechanism. If a student or faculty member feels his or her rights under the statute have been violated, there’s no prescribed punishment or cause of action to file suit.
Its language provides the same protection for all viewpoints. The bill was sponsored primarily by Republicans but received unanimous support in the Senate and was ratified 85-7 in the House.
“It’s the best bill on campus free speech in the country,” says Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Philadelphia-based non-partisan group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which helped craft the legislation.
“It puts Tennessee far ahead of anyone else right now. You can write a free speech bill in partisan terms that don’t foster long-term respect on both sides of the aisle for these concepts, or you can do what Tennessee did, which is draft a bill that gets the legal lines right and treats people of all points of view with the same fundamental fairness and rights. So I’m pleased that Tennessee did the right thing.”
But Cohn also notes the irony in the Legislature’s reaction to Sex Week, a student-funded sexual education and awareness event each spring that predictably draws the outrage of conservatives who try to ban it – even though it is protected speech and none of it is funded by state dollars.
“The Tennessee legislature has repeatedly tried to threaten the University of Tennessee‘s budget to try to get them to clamp down on students’ ability to spend their own money on Sex Week,” Cohn points out.
“What’s interesting is that the Legislature has done, in its actions, the best thing a legislature can do, but in its work it has consistently done the wrong thing. Respecting the rights of students and faculty to express their views freely in a climate that’s increasingly polarized is difficult, but it’s also necessary for higher education to function properly. I hope everyone agrees that they need to stand on the side of free expression and not on the side of censorship.”
Sex Week went on, as usual, this past spring.
UT-Knoxville gets high marks from FIRE for its campus free speech protections. It has a website, freespeech.utk.edu, that articulates the university’s stance on the topic and answers student’s questions.
The Office of the Dean of Students sponsors on-campus presentations on the First Amendment and works with a number of first-year initiatives to disseminate information on free speech to new students on campus.
Dean of Students Shea Kidd Houze, the assistant vice chancellor for student life, explains UTK students actively engage with free speech issues.
“I believe a hallmark of Generation Z is that many are interested in inclusion and appreciation of difference, whereas the millennial generation was categorized as being focused on tolerance and maintaining a peaceful co-existence,” Houze says.
“As it relates to the topic at hand, I see this in my work as students grapple with how to create a safe and inclusive campus when hate speech is protected speech. As a counter, students have created campaigns and events to demonstrate their commitment to valuing different viewpoints while fostering a culture of respect.”
The system’s two smaller campuses have kept a relatively low profile with little controversy. University of Tennessee at Martin’s new five-year strategic plan, launched in July, includes goals such as increasing enrollment, retention and graduation rates, upping revenues by 25 percent, raising median compensation and increasing research and public service activities.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, on the other hand, is benefiting from its location in one of the state’s hottest markets. As Chattanooga’s visibility has risen as a magnet for tech and industry, so has that of UTC, which is more than halfway through its current strategic plan and well on its way to meeting its goals.
UTC has been the top performer for the past four years under the state’s Complete College Tennessee Act, which awards funding to campuses based on outcomes and degree completion rates. This year UTC earned an extra $3.9 million for its high performance.
The UTC Foundation set new records for its endowment and fundraising in the past fiscal year, and earlier this year, the university renamed the College of Business after alumni Gary W. Rollins, whose $40 million gift was the largest in the school’s history.
The university received more than $12 million in grants for research and sponsored projects in fiscal year 2018 – a 20 percent increase over fiscal 2017. And despite having nearly half a billion dollars in new construction in various stages, UTC did not raise tuition for the 2018-2019 school year.
UTC’s efforts to increase diversity are also beginning to pay off. Nearly half the students pursuing its new master’s degree in public health this year are racial or ethnic minorities, and the university has made some slight progress in increasing the number of women and under-represented minorities as tenure-track faculty in STEM fields.
The number of veterans and lower-income students earning bachelor’s degrees are up by double digits since 2015, and metrics are up in student retention, degree completion, and total degrees awarded for the entire campus population.
UTK has had many successes also – setting records in the past year for undergraduate enrollment, retention and graduation rates, as well as externally-funded research expenditures and philanthropic giving. This fall, the campus welcomed its largest freshman class ever – about 5,180 students – to a campus undergoing a multi-year transformation.
Last month, UTK broke ground on a $129 million, 228,000-square-foot engineering building that is scheduled to open in 2021. More construction projects will open before that, including two new residence halls that are part of the ongoing West Campus Redevelopment project.
But as students settle into the new school year, which will ramp up with a Homecoming football game next Saturday against UNC Charlotte, the campus still lacks a permanent chancellor. Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis, who was appointed in May following the sudden ouster of Beverly Davenport, is a respected former dean of retirement age who does not intend to stay longer than a year.
And the system has a board that includes eight brand new trustees who will not only have to get up to speed on university management but must also fill two of its top seats. At the trustees’ first meeting in August, DiPietro dispensed some parting words of perhaps hard-won wisdom.
“Resist the temptation to micromanage the university,” he advised.