A President’s Eye View

A President's Eye View

President John Petersen is in his third year at the UT helm, and he’s making his mark on several fronts. He has made it a point to travel the state and listen to Tennesseans’ opinions. He has brought in fresh talent to fill vacancies on his immediate staff and overseen the writing of a detailed strategic plan for the future of the university.

The UT Board of Trustees recently renewed his contract through 2008, citing his “substantial progress” in defining the roles of the UT system and its campuses and institutes, communicating with key constituent groups, and setting the agenda for the future with the strategic plan.

Petersen talked to The Tennessee Alumnus about the strategic plan, the university’s new institutional identity program, the UT-Oak Ridge partnership, and more.

Q. The statewide university has a new strategic plan that defines UT’s key missions as student access, student success, research, economic development, outreach, and globalization. Explain what the plan means for the average Tennessean.

A. The university has a responsibility to impact those areas. If you view the university as a facilitator of education and an economic driver, those areas–to get students in and through successfully, to do the intellectual development that will help us attract businesses and contribute to economic growth, to touch people where they live, and to educate our students to be successful in a global environment–are top priorities. If we do all six things and do them well, that will lead to an educated population that can drive a healthy economy and better quality of life.

Q. What are some specific strategies UT is considering to increase the number of Tennesseans with college degrees?

A. To get students into college you have to get them out of high school. In Tennessee, we have a lot of leakage in the pipeline from students who start high school to students who finish high school. That leakage is almost 40 percent. That’s tough, but statistics show it’s not just a Tennessee problem. I think we have to change people’s mindsets. Generations ago a high-school diploma or less would still make you competitive for jobs. Those jobs have gone offshore or been replaced by ones that require more technical ability. We have to raise expectations about educational levels in the state.

We have to ensure that our education programs graduate teachers and administrators who are as good and innovative as we can make them. And we have to continue to support teachers in the workforce, keeping them as up-to-date as possible. We also have been taking a fairly active role with K-through-12 education in curriculum development. If we know where our students are weak when they come in the doors, how can we help them come better prepared? And then we have to work to help them adapt to the university.

Q. A significant number of Tennesseans have some college credits but didn’t finish their degrees. What can UT do to help them graduate?

A. In Tennessee, only 43 percent of students who start college finish. It’s not because they can’t do the work–in fact I think that’s a minor reason. There are issues about such things as finances and family responsibilities. We’re working with the Tennessee Board of Regents on a program that would allow students [who already have accumulated credits toward a degree] to finish their education where they live through a combination of face-to-face and distance learning. We think we can help build the educated workforce in the state by doing that. If you want to sustain and attract businesses, the first question is “Do you have the educated workforce?” Right now Tennessee is 44th out of 50 states in the percentage of adults with degrees.

Q. The university was fortunate to receive an increase in state operating funds this year, but the future may not be promising for sustained or significant increases. How can the university educate more students and provide more outreach and economic stimulation when our primary funding source isn’t likely to grow appreciably?

A. This year the state increased our base funding for the first time in many years. I think as the economy continues to improve, we’ll have the opportunity–by blending tuition increases with state support–to raise the level of funding for education programs.

We’re always looking for other funding sources–private giving, grants, and contracts. And we can reallocate money. Our strategic plan establishes the areas in which we intend to focus. When we make budgetary decisions, we say, “Where does this fit into our plan?” If it doesn’t, we shouldn’t be supporting it or increasing funding for it.

Fundraising gives you value added. Ultimately we hope our gift dollars will align with our strategic plan, and certainly they also should be aligned with donors’ wishes. The strategic plan should make it easier for us to raise private gifts because people can see we know what we’re about and we’re outcomes-driven.

Q. Research is one of the primary elements of the strategic plan. Explain why UT research is important to the state of Tennessee.

A. What differentiates a country or a state is the ability to innovate, grow, and be creative. Take the agriculture industry, for example. Not too many years ago, I think 25 percent of people’s income was spent on food. It’s only 10 percent now because we’ve become so much more efficient in producing food. If you can make life easier, more convenient, more efficient–that’s a positive step. You do that by doing research. Intellectual enterprises bring forth new products, processes, and ways of thinking. Institutions should be leaders in that process.

Q. Governor Bredesen has made some remarks about restructuring Tennessee higher education. What is your reaction?

A. I think the UT system is perfectly situated. We’re a statewide enterprise, but all our institutions are different. We’re small enough to work together but large enough to have an impact. I don’t think dumping all institutions into one large organization is good because you get so much deviation in mission and size issues arise. It becomes very difficult to manage. But you don’t want a board with each institution–that gets cumbersome. You don’t get much economy of scale. I’m comfortable that we can manage the UT system effectively and be helpful for the state.

Q. The public is very concerned about the high cost of tuition. As the president of a major higher-education institution, how do you respond?

A. When you look at the cost of public higher education at UT campuses, it’s about the best deal you can find. Certainly we want to limit tuition as best we can. But the current tuition doesn’t seem to have an impact on our applications. They keep going up.

Let’s say the total cost of education is $12,000 a year for room, board, tuition, everything–about $50,000 for a 4-year degree. The difference in average salary for a college graduate versus a high-school graduate in Tennessee is about $14,000 a year. That means in 4 years, you’ve made back all that investment, and [$14,000 a year for] your other 20 to 30 years in the workforce is profit. It’s an investment that pays dividends almost immediately.

Q. What is your response to the critical report drafted by the national Commission on the Future of Higher Education?

A. I don’t think that will have much impact. I sat on a panel recently that included people who were looking at funding models in higher education. Their feeling was the commission didn’t really address the issues needed to make things happen. Of the major powers in the world, the United States probably places less emphasis on education than any other group with respect to the amount of money we spend and the value we put on teachers. If education is the most important thing for our society, why do we pay the people we entrust that to so little? I think there’s a disconnect in what we say and what we do. We have to take a close look at what we value as a country, what we value as a state, and allot our resources. Are we going to let China and India out-produce us intellectually and have all our money and jobs, and then we look at what we can do to fix it? I think it’s going to require much more of a culture change in how we support education than I’ve seen coming out of any group.

Q. The university recently rolled out a new branding initiative. What is its significance throughout the statewide UT system?

A. The University of Tennessee is a university system made up of individual enterprises that are different in focus and geography but similar in that they contribute to the same goals–we like to say our campuses are “distinct but linked.” Branding helps us explain who we are. It gives each UT campus and institute individuality but shows they’re all part of a university that shares goals. It gives the university clarity, focus, and recognition. Branding will make sure people understand how the University of Tennessee affects their lives and the state” economy.

Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since you’ve been at UT?

A. It’s something that has been reinforced rather than learned. That is, if you are consistent and fair, you communicate, you listen and engage with stakeholders–employees, students, legislators, people of the state–that’s most of what you need to enable success as an organization. People aren’t always going to agree with what an organization does, but they appreciate being involved in the process. People will support an organization that’s clear in its goals. We’ve got a long way to go in terms of where I think we should be on that. But I think we’re getting better all the time. I think it shows. People are enthusiastic.

Q. You’ve said you think UT is “one of the hottest growing institutions in the country.” Why is that? What do you foresee for the university?

A. It starts with the governor. He understands higher education and knows what it can do for a state. The legislature has been in step. We have good opportunities with respect to philanthropy. A lot of national businesses are headquartered here. So there are good industrial partners that can connect with our programs, faculty, and students. Also my predecessors built a group of alumni and supporters who are willing to help accomplish the university’s vision. And if you look at the state’s geography, environment, cost of living, and quality of life, it’s an awfully nice state in which to live.

The university has partnerships with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital among others–these are world-class institutions. We’re getting visibility nationwide and worldwide in the strategic areas we’re focusing on to be the best in the world. With a lot of hard work by a lot of people, we now have a national lab [Oak Ridge National Laboratory] that, instead of being in the middle of the pack, is the top national lab in the country. We’ve gotten very good people to join the university because we have fantastic opportunities. All of us are at a great moment in history for the University of Tennessee, and the opportunities are infinite. The future truly is in our hands.