insights (2007-41)

UT Conflict Resolution Needed


Itâ’s been two months since University of Tennessee President John Petersen provoked a clash with the flagship Knoxville campus by promulgating an ill-considered mission statement and asserting control over matters that campus administrators and faculty consider to be their province.

While the ensuing controversy may seem like a tempest in a teapot to outsiders, the issues involved are fundamental to the academic community, and the conflict should not be allowed to fester.

Petersenâ’s proclamation was that â“the mission of the University of Tennessee is to provide the people of Tennessee with access to quality high education, economic development, and enhanced quality-of-life opportunities.â” That may have played well in legislative and business circles, whose support is important to the university. But it was offensive to academicians, especially due to its failure to mention research, which they consider central to their mission. Petersen went on to say that the UT system hierarchy would be responsible for providing administrative support to the campuses, overseeing relationships with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and for the development of a new Cherokee Campus just across the Tennessee River from UTâ’s main campus.

On Sept. 6, Chancellor Loren Crabtree responded that â“the mission statement does not in its present form advance the Knoxville campusâ’ goal of becoming a great public university.... This goal is critical to serving the educational, cultural, and economic needs of the people of Tennessee.â” He went on to complain that â“programs and processes normally controlled by flagship institutions are under the mission statement, removed from the Knoxville campus, and this produces a situation where we lack the authority to direct priorities and resources that further our goals. This pertains to human resources management, the information technology grid that is so important to our teaching and research functions, planning and construction management on the main campus, the unique and enduring UTK relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Cherokee Farm, etc.â”

The chancellor concluded that â“those faculty, staff, and deans who responded to the mission statement believe that it will homogenize the various units of the University of Tennesseeâ"each [one] up until now, an independent and unique institution with a special roleâ"and in so doing will diminish all to mediocrity. No one is in favor of such an outcome.â”

At a Sept. 9 meeting of the Faculty Senate, Crabtree sounded reassuring when he told the assemblage that he and Petersen are â“not locked in mortal combat. He and I are working out these matters, and weâ’ll report to you very quickly how those issues will be resolved.â”

But now, another month has passed and no report has been forthcoming. Meanwhile, both Petersen and Crabtree have made themselves inaccessible to the media. â“Thereâ’s nothing to report; groups are having ongoing dialog,â” says UTâ’s vice president for public relations, Hank Dye, in response to a request for an interview with Petersen. Similarly, Crabtree spokesperson Karen Collins says, â“Weâ’re being very careful about not playing things out in the media, but I can tell you that discussions are going well.â”

One step toward amelioration may be last weekâ’s appointment of a diverse, 20-person planning committee for the Cherokee Farm Campus. Along with deans and other campus and system administrators, the committee also includes ORNL, business, neighborhood and student representatives. UTâ’s Executive Vice President, David Millhorn, who chairs the committee, had been overseeing plans for the 200-acre site in a top-down sort of way.

A month ago, Millhorn insisted that â“expanding the Knoxville campus isnâ’t what this is all about. Itâ’s about building a specialized, technology rich campus that will have research side-by-side with private enterprise.â” But now he says, â“The goal is to set aside everything thatâ’s been heard, thought or said and be open to Cherokee Farms as a revolutionary and spectacular idea.â”

The flip side is that itâ’s unclear how long the planning process may take and how much it may delay construction of the building that was due to be its centerpiece. That would be a Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, and JIAMâ’s director, physics Professor Ward Plummers, is fuming at the prospect of further delay in building this new facility, which he believes is already overdue.

In my estimation, both Petersen and Crabtree are very good men, and they have seemingly worked well together in the past. Petersenâ’s favorite word is partnering, and heâ’s been very successful at doing so on many fronts. Surely, he and Crabtree can find a way to achieve a proverbial win-win resolution of their current dispute, even though some set of campus vs. system frictions may never go away. â" Joe Sullivan


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