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Moving Forward with Priorities

Whether you’re a motorist or a Provost, it’s always a good idea to take a quick look in the rearview mirror before hitting the accelerator.

This campus has seen a lot of changes in the past year, and we know there are more to come. We will soon have an interim UT System president, a new chancellor, a couple of new vice chancellors, and a couple of new college deans.

I realize that change, and especially changes in leadership, can be stressful. Coping with that stress is easier when we keep our collective eyes on road ahead.

You’ve done that. You’ve navigated the uncertainty and kept this university moving forward. That underscores what I knew coming here: This is a university where faculty and staff are invested in success.

I’ve spent much of my first three months on Rocky Top asking questions and listening.

This campus has made huge strides in many areas, including bringing in the largest freshman class in at least 30 years and bringing total enrollment to nearly 29,000. Our first-year retention rate of 87 percent and our six-year graduation rate of 72 percent are record highs. Research expenditures and fundraising are also at unprecedented highs.

We are poised to move to the next level. To help steer us, I’ve determined an initial set of priorities, which I’ve presented at several meetings and in an email. Let me share them again here:

Increase our six-year graduation rate. Despite hitting a record high, we still lag behind many of our peers. Our efforts to increase retention must stay on the front burner. Our goal is to hit an 80 percent six-year graduation rate by 2022.

Grow our research profile. We’ve had a record year in research expenditures—$204 million. To ensure continued growth in research, we must have appropriate facilities, increase our graduate student population (since graduate students are critical to our research enterprise), and be strategic in hiring faculty. Thanks in part to our growing enrollment, we are able to search for 24 additional faculty members this year, including faculty for our three cluster hire areas—all of which will enhance our research operation.

Ensure student access. The great news is that 89 percent of our in-state applicants are given a pathway to a UT education. We must continue to provide the right mix of scholarships and other financial aid to keep UT within reach of a diverse group of students.

Enhance diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion, among students, faculty, and staff, enhance the depth and breadth of all we do. The Diversity Advocates program, our Faculty Mentoring and Support initiative, and our new NSF ASCEND grant are among the efforts that will help us improve our recruitment and retention of underrepresented faculty.

Increase e-learning opportunities. E-learning can help us increase access to our university, provide better education to our current students, and grow enrollment and resources. Yet there are operational issues as well as faculty concerns that must be addressed. Based on the report from an outside consulting firm and feedback at the Academic Leadership Retreat, we are looking for the best way to proceed in strategically harnessing the exciting benefits of e-learning.

Examine the budget model. I want to start a conversation about the way we fund our academic operation. Do we have the right budget model? Are we encouraging entrepreneurial thought on the part of deans and department heads? I want us to think about where we are as well as where we want to be. Since our budget is growing, this is an ideal time to explore our options.