By Gina Stafford
Photography by Adam Brimer
Five years ago this month, Joe DiPietro assumed the presidency of the University of Tennessee in a pretty unassuming way. He carried cardboard boxes of mementoes into the office, rolled up his sleeves, and “Joe: Day 1” was underway.
The job—CEO of a statewide system of higher education—is responsible for oversight of an organization with about 15,000 employees, 50,000 students, 362,000 alumni, a $2.1 billion annual budget and a presence in every Tennessee county. DiPietro’s first five years in office have brought successes, challenges and no shortage of issues to manage. Most he anticipated, some he didn’t, and all of it he keeps in perspective.
Easily the most unexpected challenge came from the paradigm shift in funding, he says, noting that while 2008’s economic downturn had begun to abate in 2011, he realized shortly into his presidency that the fiscal circumstances were unlike any he’d seen in 20 years of public higher ed administration.
“I came into this job fairly steeped in the fact you counted on the state to help you, but then you start to realize this wasn’t going to be another one of those lean-to-good cycles I’d seen so many times before. Most states don’t have a choice to help higher ed much more than they are, because most have just what we do in Tennessee: a structural deficit in the budget,” he says. “That’s a paradigm shift I didn’t expect the first day I was on the job.
“The real wake-up moment was when Bill Fox and I went to lunch one day, and he just laid it out.”
Fox, an economist and director of the UT Knoxville Center for Business and Economic Research, walked DiPietro through the revenue and budget structures for state government, which has no constitutional mandate to fund higher education.
“He said, ‘There’s a structural deficit in the state budget, Joe, and higher ed’s discretionary, so don’t count on the typical return to funding levels as great as they have been in previous times.’ What that told me was we have to figure out what to do about the problem on our own.”
The problem: a now-estimated $247.5 million funding gap by 2025, assuming no more than 3 percent tuition increases, a 3 percent cap on salary increases and no additional state funding.
That realization led to development of DiPietro’s Budget Advisory Group, a collection of voices inside and outside the university who gave input on critical UT needs and opportunities. The result was a set of UT budgetary boundaries enacted for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2015. At the same time, enhancing efficiencies while maintaining excellence remains a focus. After two fiscal years, the impact of the approach will be reviewed and needed adjustments made.
“I knew, given the size and scope of the organization, we would have controversial issues, though I never expected the ones we’ve had,” DiPietro says, “but what I wouldn’t have guessed is that we would climb as aggressively as we have into the sustainable funding issue.”
Upon taking the job, DiPietro says, his top two priorities were building the team he would work with, and clarifying the structure and functions of the UT system and its campuses.
“I wanted to create an environment of teamwork, stability and commitment to the institution—those three things—and with that, I thought we could create a structure where we were truly a system, with autonomy at the campus and institute level, and yet accountable to the system,” he says. “I really tried to focus on those, initially, and I think we did that.”
System-campus structure was formally defined in a strategic planning process that produced a plan implemented in 2012. Three years later, DiPietro’s report to the Board of Trustees highlighted progress toward 20 strategic metrics: 13 goals were achieved or exceeded, progress was at 90 percent or better on two goals, and the remainder were at 80 percent or better, several with extenuating circumstances.
“If you take a look at metrics and how we’re performing based on the strategic plan and where we wanted to be by July, we’re moving the place in the right direction,” DiPietro says. “My hope is that clarifying the system-campus structure leaves that in a good place going forward for the long term, regardless of who’s in this job or serving as chancellors.”
In a five-year period that’s included a series of successes, DiPietro says his personal favorite is the support he’s earned from the Board of Trustees. With 21 voting members at the table the day of DiPietro’s 2010 election, he was chosen over the other candidate by a margin of one vote.
“While they said, ‘We’re all behind you’ the day they gave me the privilege to have this job, when you come in on an 11-10 vote, you’ve got to wonder,” he says. “So the thing I’m most pleased about so far in this job is how we’ve worked from Day 1 to earn the board’s support.
“Clearly, if you look at the comprehensive review I underwent (in year 4), we’ve won this board over, and I really appreciate the confidence they have in me and what we’re trying to do.”
In exchange for long days, short nights and little down time, you might imagine DiPietro’s high-profile, highly influential job has its perks. Asked what’s best about being UT president, he doesn’t hesitate.
“The people. Our employees, our students, our alumni, our donors—the people who love this institution,” DiPietro says. “In Tennessee, this brand, this university has a different resonance and relationship with people than I’ve seen before. It’s absolutely loved and really special to so many.”
Those people make a big job more manageable, DiPietro says.
“We still count on people to support us and stand in our corner, which makes you feel good,” he says. “With their support, I hope we’re on an even stronger trek to leave this place better than when we started.”