By Elizabeth Davis
Sprawled on the floor, studying pictures of mummies while other children splashed in the pool, Jan Simek discovered his life’s goal. “I’ve never wanted to be anything other than an archaeologist,” he says, recalling his childhood in California. He achieved that career dream, and he’s done a lot more.
A Distinguished Professor of Anthropology in Knoxville, Simek has been internationally honored for his work in human evolution and cave archaeology, stemming from his more than 20 years of research in southern France. And since coming to Tennessee in 1984, he has become the go-to expert on prehistoric cave art in the U.S. Southeast.
But Simek was plucked from the classroom and his research in dark caves several years ago to take on what has become a series of administrative positions within the university, several of them on a temporary basis. (He’s had so many interim titles, he jokes that interim is actually his middle name.)
Now, Simek is UT’s interim president for the next 2 years—during one of the most difficult economic periods in recent decades. When the 2-year stint is over, he says, he’s going back to his caves.
When Simek was introduced as the acting president to succeed John Petersen in February, the university was planning for a cut of $66 million from its state appropriations, but it later got a temporary reprieve. The state is offsetting the shortfall with one-time federal stimulus money over the next 2 years. After that, the university will again face large budget cuts.
Besides dealing with harsh budget times and a pending search for a new president, Simek has been charged by the Board of Trustees with leading a reorganization of the UT system administration. The reorganization better defines the functions the system performs as opposed to those to be performed by the campuses and will lead to streamlining and cost savings. Outside UT, Simek is part of an ongoing state-level discussion about higher education in Tennessee, and he is making sure that whatever steps are taken, the university maintains its high quality.
Simek is facing all this with realism and optimism, making student welfare his top priority. “We will strive in all of our endeavors through these difficult times to focus on the students. We will focus on the resources they need to pursue their dreams,” he says.
Simek wants to see the university through the hard times and have it in good shape for the next president. And maybe it’s not a bad thing to have an interim like him at this particular time. “I believe [the interim president] needs to be somebody with institutional memory and affection and connection who’s grounded in the university to get through this,” he says. “It’s one of reasons I was willing to do it.”
Simek’s passion for UT after 25 years has not waned but grown.
“I will do my very best in these two years to keep the University of Tennessee on the upward trajectory we have been on and to protect its core values,” he says. “I am motivated in this simply by a deep and abiding love for the university. I have been in Knoxville for 25 years, and I love it here.”
A Lifetime Love of Learning
Simek was born in Glen Cove on New York’s Long Island, but he grew up in California. His family lived in Santa Monica, where his grandfather was a composer. As a child, Simek got to meet stars like John Wayne and Bob Hope.
He remembers visiting a friend of his grandparents who lived in the San Fernando Valley. Orange groves blanketed the area then, and the lovely aroma of orange blossoms in the spring often mixed with the less-delightful tarry smell of oil burning in smudge pots in the groves to keep frost at bay. At the woman’s Spanish-style hacienda, Simek was drawn to her library and her wonderful books.
“Everybody would be out in the pool, and I’d be looking at pictures of mummies,” Simek recalls. “I knew then I wanted to be an archaeologist.”
It was a dream he followed through high school and college, eventually narrowing his focus to caves and the drawings left behind by early modern humans.
After completing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of California—Santa Cruz, Simek was introduced to well-known archaeologist Jean-Philippe Rigaud and went to work with him in the Dordogne region in France. The area is a gold mine for the evidence of hundreds of thousands of years of human civilization.
Simek will tell anybody Tennessee was not his dream destination. He finished a master’s and a doctorate in anthropology at the State University of New York—Binghamton and then went to the University of Washington to teach. Perhaps as a hint of things to come, Simek’s title was “acting assistant professor.”
A permanent job at Washington didn’t materialize, and Simek was offered positions in California and at UT. A friend at the University of Washington who came originally from West Virginia encouraged Simek to give UT a chance. “He said this to me: ‘You’ll love it,’” Simek recalls. “He was right.”
Despite his increasingly time-consuming roles as interim chancellor of UT Knoxville and now interim president of the statewide university, Simek still finds time to lecture about cave art, mentor his graduate students, and even crawl down a cave or two.
But working in caves didn’t blind him to what else he could do for UT. “We are going to get better. That’s the goal. The people of Tennessee deserve a great university. The students who come here deserve a great university. The teaching faculty deserves a great university,” he says. “I have been given opportunities to help that.”
Top Photo by Alan Cressler