By Jennifer Sicking
Photo by Sam Thomas
Results from two national surveys released this year found declining trust in higher education nationwide.
Yet President Emeritus Joe DiPietro, who stepped down in November, finds hope for UT and higher education.
The Gallup Poll stated that only 48 percent of Americans have a high confidence in higher education. A Pew Research Center survey discovered 61 percent of Americans think higher education is headed in the wrong direction due to high tuition or students not learning needed skills.
Such opinions can be driven by politics rather than performance and by an unwillingness in society for people to listen to diverse views, DiPietro said. He then quoted Sen Howard Baker (Knoxville ’49), “You ought to at least listen to the other person because they may be right.”
DiPietro points to UT’s successes—from its growing number of job-ready graduates to a record four years of low tuition increases, including 0 percent increases at three campuses this year—achieved under his watch.
“I feel like we’re a lot better today than we were when I started in so many ways,” he says.
But he also knows something else: A UT education transforms students’ lives.
Student enrollment has increased 2.6 percent from Fall 2011 to Fall 2018:
Fall 2011: 49,545
Fall 2018: 50,810
Six-year graduation rate rose from 55.5 percent in 2011 to 59.6 percent in 2017.
“What this university does to make Tennessee better cannot be measured in graduation rates, funding increases or statistics,” DiPietro says. “It improves the lives, the opportunities and hope for future generations each and every day. That is what really matters, and this is what UT does better than anyone else in this state.”
He knows this because his family experienced the impact of higher education after his grandparents emigrated from Abruzzo, Italy.
“None of my grandparents had anything beyond a grade-school education, so each generation has experienced a better life because of education,” he says.
Educate. Discover. Connect. In this trifold purpose of UT, records of accomplishing those goals can be found.
The UT Foundation experienced a record fundraising year of more than $397 million given during 2017-2018 fiscal year. The record year of giving included naming two colleges at the UT Institute of Agriculture and UT Chattanooga, which join two other colleges named at UT Knoxville since 2014:
- Haslam College of Business, UTK
- Tickle College of Engineering, UTK
- Herbert College of Agriculture, UTIA
- Rollins College of Business, UTC
The UT Institute of Agriculture and Institute for Public Service had more than 5 million contacts with Tennesseans statewide.
Since a 25 percent budget cut in 2012 following the Great Recession, funding has rebounded. Compared to 2013, UT’s funding has grown by almost $164 million, a 38 percent increase in fiscal year 2019.
During DiPietro’s tenure, UT erased a projected budget gap of $377 million by 2025.
“I think the key is to keep being a champion of all the things we do accomplish,” he says, “and making sure that people understand that our core mission hasn’t performed this well in a long time.”
At the end of his career, which includes serving as a faculty member and an administrator at two other land-grant institutions, DiPietro knows there’s something special about UT.
“I’ve faced adversity, budget cuts and other issues at other places, and climbing over those obstacles has been much more difficult from the standpoint of faculty and staff interaction than during my time at the University of Tennessee,” he says. “People here have a spirit that just says, ‘We’ll figure it out to keep serving the people.’ The faculty and staff who work here are committed to this institution and our students.”
President Emeritus Joe Johnson (Knoxville ’60, ’68) praised DiPietro’s work and what he achieved as president.
“He will leave the university in a strong, stable place, thanks to his guidance and the team he has put in place,” Johnson says.
Prior to DiPietro’s selection as president in 2010, UT underwent a decade of three presidents and three interims at its helm. Before beginning his service as president in January 2011, DiPietro led the Institute of Agriculture for five years beginning in 2006.
In DiPietro’s 2018 performance evaluation, then-Vice Chair Raja Jubran (Knoxville ’81) wrote, “Dr. DiPietro’s integrity and selfless commitment to doing what is best for the University continue to be his greatest strengths, and I continue to believe he has been and is the right president at the right time.”