Feature — 23 September 2009
The Best UT Has Ever Been

By David Smith

Over its more than 200-year history, the University of Tennessee has seen its share of turning points—times that marked transitions to new eras of progress and higher standing among its peers. Now just may be one of those times.

“The University of Tennessee is the best it has ever been. We’re doing education better than we have ever done it,” UT’s interim president Jan Simek says. Simek has observed the university as professor and administrator since 1984. “We have better students and a better faculty.

“The product is better prepared for today’s world in terms of understanding innovation and understanding in depth what the problems and issues and prospects are. We’re more powerful than we’ve ever been.”

What propelled the university to this place? Tennessee Education Lottery scholarships, a determination to recruit top faculty prospects, a shared vision for launching initiatives of unprecedented scope and impact, the UT–Oak Ridge partnership, and like-minded state leadership are just a few of the influential factors cited by Simek and other leaders.

“You cannot underestimate the value of the leadership at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the university, and the state government all being on the same page, with the same vision, the same aspirations for this state and this university,” says UTexecutive vice-president David Millhorn.

Millhorn says Governor Phil Bredesen understands the roles of the university and the national lab and “understands that together they’re pretty formidable.”

UT Knoxville’s chancellor Jimmy Cheek says the faculty has much to do with UT’s standing. “Our faculty is committed to research, committed to outreach, and committed to graduate education,” Cheek says. “But they have a uniform commitment to undergraduate education, and that’s a real positive for a university like this.”

Across the state, UT campuses are teeming with the most highly qualified students in the university’s history. In 2008 the average ACT scores of incoming freshmen at UT Knoxville, UT Chattanooga, and UT Martin were the highest of the previous decade. At UT Knoxville, the high-school grade-point averages of incoming freshmen increased every year from 2001 through 2008.

Acknowledging the role of lottery scholarships in keeping Tennessee’s best students in state, Simek argues that the university’s quality has now become UT’s draw. Students are telling their brothers, sisters, and friends about what UT offers, he says.

“We’re at a place where our reputation is doing it. We had good faculty already, and now because the students are good, we’re getting better faculty. You can feel it in the classroom,” Simek says. It’s a different place than it was five years ago.”

The UT faculty is challenging those bright minds, pushing the classroom experience into new realms. The result is an increasingly better-educated Tennessee population—UT produces about 9,000 graduates annually—that promises lasting impact statewide and beyond.

Kraken, UT’s Supercomputer

Faculty members and researchers also are pursuing real-world solutions using such world-class resources as UT’s supercomputer, Kraken. Kraken was declared the world’s fastest university-managed supercomputer and sixth-fastest overall in the most recent Top 500 list, the global standard for ranking supercomputers. Kraken resulted from UT’s winning a $65 million National Science Foundation grant in 2007—then the largest research grant to UT in history. The supercomputer represents the fruit of a vision shared by Bredesen and the leadership of both the university and ORNL.

During his first term as governor, Bredesen began supporting funding for a series of joint institutes to be operated by UT and ORNL, for nanophase materials, biological sciences, computational sciences, and advanced materials. The expanded partnerships andjoint institutes helped UT and ORNL pursue bigger, more significant projects.

The Kraken supercomputer and the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative are two examples of how UT and ORNL competed—and won—because they did so as partners, says ORNL’s director Thom Mason. For instance, the supercomputing grant probably could not have been awarded to the national lab because NSF primarily funds academic research activities, Mason said.

“On the other hand, it would have been very hard for UT by itself to win that proposal because the infrastructure requirements, the technological expertise—a lot of the capabilities—draw on the resources here at the lab,” Mason says. “Together we make a great team.”

Tennessee Biofuels Innitiative

In 2007, Bredesen requested and the Tennessee legislature appropriated $70.5 million for the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, a farm-to-fuel project to develop a commercially viable nonfoods biofuels industry. Private partner DuPont Danisco contributed matching funds, and a pilot-scale biorefinery in Vonore is expected to begin pumping out cellulosic ethanol by the end of 2009.

Complementing the Biofuels Initiative, the Ag Extension Service, through UT’s Institute of Agriculture, has developed a switchgrass-growing program to provide feedstock for the biorefinery. “That’s something only the state land-grant institution has the ability to do,” Mason notes.

There’s confidence that major investments like these will bring about tangible results. “I can assure you that in the next ten years the university and Oak Ridge will be able to transform what happens in fields such as solar materials,” says Thomas Zacharia, deputy director of science and technology at ORNL and former vice-president at UT.

Bringing Business and Innovation to Tennessee

DuPont Danisco is among an impressive group of companies making new or additional significant investments in Tennessee. Others include Nissan, Hemlock Semiconductor, Wacker Chemie AG, and Volkswagen.

UT played a part in helping to attract Volkswagen to the state, according to Millhorn and Zacharia. “As the university becomes even more of a research organization, even more of a top-tier university, it will have an even greater role in attracting major companies to Tennessee,” Zacharia says.

UT and ORNL are capitalizing on their partnership at a time when world events have turned the collective attention toward science and energy—an agenda the UT–Oak Ridge partnership is ideally suited to pursue. Bredesen indicated his backing by proposing the $31.5-million Tennessee Solar Institute be housed at UT’s new Cherokee Farm campus.

Located adjacent to UT’s flagship campus in Knoxville, Cherokee Farm will be home to private and public partners, including ORNL, tackling research in materials sciences, biomedical sciences, supercomputing, climate and environment, and renewable energy.

“The governor trusts us. He’s seen what we’ve done with biofuels,” Millhorn says. “He’s seen what we’ve done with Oak Ridge. He’s seen what we’ve done with Cherokee Farm, seen progress being made, and now when the solar thing comes up, guess who he calls first? Us.”

Dr. Joe DiPietro, UT vice-president of agriculture, credits a collaborative effort by the university and ORNL, with key support from the governor’s office, with making the $70.5-million biofuels initiative happen. “It was the circumstance of having the right group of people who pushed very hard and worked very hard. The team exuded a great deal of confidence about the ability to deliver,” DiPietro says.

Millhorn agrees that the can-do attitude makes a difference. “It’s part of this ongoing change in the view that the university is not just an East Tennessee enterprise, it’s not just a state of Tennessee enterprise. It’s a Southeastern enterprise, and in many ways, it’s national.”

Millhorn says the new attitude has UT going after bigger prizes. “We’ll compete with anybody. We don’t back away because somebody says, ‘Oh well, MIT is in this.’ Bring ’em on,” Millhorn says. “It’s just like football. There’s no difference. It’s all competition. You can go in there either to place or to win. We compete.”

As a university partnering with a national lab, UT is already among an elite group. The other U.S. universities with relationships with national laboratories are the University of California—Berkeley, University of Chicago, Stony Brook University, and Stanford University.

“That’s pretty heavy company,” Zacharia says. “My experience with UT is it has a great cadre of faculty and administrators that are striving to transform the university into a major research institution.”
Zacharia predicts that combining new effort with competitive resources will enable UT to generate its own success. “The best people are attracted to the best program, and the best people create the best program.”

When both the best students and faculty members are attracted to the university, where they are equipped with world-renowned resources, they can find themselves on the cutting edge of science. And these accomplishments can profoundly impact the state.

“The value proposition is these students are trained in new interdisciplinary areas,” Zacharia says. “Because of the fact they are in-state, they are likely to stay here and be entrepreneurs and create new jobs, or maybe a new company will transfer here because there’s an educated workforce trained here.”

“The Silicon Valley Model”

Speaking from his experience in the Knoxville area, Knoxville Chamber of Commerce CEO Mike Edwards says business site consultants who help companies find new locations are noticing the area’s educated populace and potential for job growth.

“It’s not our impression. The site consultants are telling us this. They’re bringing us companies that we would not otherwise see,” Edwards says.

Mason calls it “the Silicon Valley model.” “The investment of federal dollars is coming to Tennessee. Jobs are created in Tennessee. The intellectual property associated with them is generated in Tennessee, and therefore the economic benefit that will flow from that research will land in Tennessee.”

Contact between researchers and entrepreneurs benefits the area as well, he says.

How is the momentum sustained? Administrators of the UT system, of UT Knoxville, and of ORNL have begun discussing an educational component to the UT–Oak Ridge partnership. Discussions center on graduate programs in fields like climate change that would take advantage of the resources of the UT–Oak Ridge partnership.

“Imagine having graduate students trained by ORNL and UT. Imagine the impact on the reputation of the university with students going to the best companies,” Zacharia says.

Through the efforts of its leaders and its partners, the University of Tennessee will continue to stand apart from its peers. “The status quo is not acceptable,” Cheek says. “In five years, this will be a better university than it is today.”

UT Students: Best Ever

Average ACT test scores and high-school grade-point averages of incoming freshmen increased steadily at the Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Martin campuses in the last decade.

UT Knoxville
High-school GPA: 3.34 (1999) : 3.66 (2008)
ACT: 23.8 (1999) : 26.6 (2008)

UT Chattanooga
High-school GPA: 3.20 (1999) : 3.22 (2008)
ACT: 21.9 (1999) : 22.4 (2008)

UT Martin
High-school GPA: 3.15 (1999) : 3.38 (2008)
ACT: 21.1 (1999) : 22.4 (2008)

Cherokee Farm at a Glance

  • UT Board of Trustees approved the master plan in June 2009
  • UT will collaborate with public and private partners on a variety of interdisciplinary science initiatives
  • 77 developable acres along the Tennessee River in Knoxville
  • 15 research buildings, 4,000 parking spaces
  • $32 million in state 2007 appropriations for infrastructure construction
  • First building will be the UT–Oak Ridge Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM), built with $30 million in federal and state funds
  • JIAM will house the $31.5 million Tennessee Solar Institute
  • Building design standards recommend LEED-Certified Silver energy efficiency
  • Pedestrian- and bike-friendly pathways and greenways
  • Vegetative, or “living,” roofs, solar panels, and geothermal systems expected

For more information: www.tennessee.edu/cherokee

Enrollment 2007/2008 Comparisons

Knoxville: 27,077 (2007) : 27,544 (2008)
Space Institute: 231 (2007) : 225 (2008)
Health Science Center: 2,655 (2007) : 2,671 (2008)
Chattanooga: 9,557 (2007) : 9,807 (2008)
Martin: 7,171 (2007) : 7,574 (2008)
Total: 46,691 (2007) : 47,821 (2008)
Source: UT System Fact Book

Alumni Living in Tennessee

Chattanooga: 26,936
Health Science Center: 15,992
Knoxville: 104,864
Martin: 23,533
Total: 171,325
Source: University of Tennessee ANDi Reporting

Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, 2009

  • 38 farmers will grow more than 1,900 acres of switchgrass in 2009 as part of the farmer incentive program
  • 2 of the 38 farmers took part in the program in 2008 and are adding acreage
  • Total acreage enrolled over the last 2 years exceeds 2,600 acres
  • The pilot-scale biorefinery in Vonore, Tennessee, is expected to produce cellulosic ethanol by the end of 2009

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