John Petersen's Irons in the Fire

UT's president quiets some Knoxville firestorms

John Petersen has so many irons in the fire, to use his phrase, that it's no wonder that the University of Tennessee's president occasionally gets burned.

Such was the case last year when Petersen set off a firestorm with his assertion of authority over several spheres that UT's Knoxville campus considered to be its province. These included control over the development of the university's new Cherokee Campus, construction of new buildings on the main campus, human resources, and information technology.

The dispute led to the resignation of Chancellor Loren Crabtree and a near move by the Faculty Senate in January to hold a vote of no confidence in the president.

Since then, however, Petersen has succeeded in allaying concerns without compromising what he considers to be prerogatives of the UT system's high command. A series of astute appointments, more attentiveness to aggrieved faculty representatives, and more delegation of responsibility to avoid decision-making "bottlenecks" have all contributed to a much improved relationship.

For starters, Petersen picked an esteemed faculty member, Jan Simek, as interim chancellor following Crabtree's resignation. A distinguished professor of anthropology, Simek had been serving as Crabtree's chief of staff and had previously proven his ability as a troubleshooter during a stint as interim dean of a then strife-torn College of Architecture and Design.

To head efforts to rectify information technology deficiencies that were symbolized by a defective e-mail system, Petersen named another highly regarded Knoxville academician, computer science professor Jesse Poore as the university's chief information officer. "Jesse is obviously the right person for the job, and I'm pleasantly surprised he accepted it," says former Faculty Senate president John Nolt, who had been an outspoken critic of the university's IT failings.

For his chief of staff, Petersen recruited the effervescent Margie Nichols, who had been serving as Mayor Bill Haslam's director of communication and government relations. Outgoing Faculty Senate president David Patterson gives her a good bit of credit for facilitating improved communication between Petersen and the campus.

In a letter to the faculty advising against holding a vote of no confidence in the president, Patterson goes on to say that, "From my perspective, there are a number of positive developments that have occurred since the faculty survey was taken in January, including but not limited to:

"1. Appointment of a CIO
"2. Progression towards the construction of the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, which had previously been held up by system inaction.
"3. Initiation of construction on the Min Kao engineering building, again previously held up by system inaction.
"4. Increased communication with the President
"5. Commencement of the Chancellor search, with significant faculty representation on the search committee."

And the list goes on, albeit coupled with concerns about, "The President's understanding of and support for shared governance of the campus and university."

An interview with Petersen makes it clear that firefighting on the Knoxville campus has by no means lessened his attention to the all the irons he likes to talk about. "You think about Oak Ridge and all the successes we have going there. We've got the biofuels initiative in the fire. We've got Cherokee farm in the fire. Our Health Science Center is trying to do partnerships with St. Jude Hospital... Our capital campaign has been very successful. We're working with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to help generate a model that will support higher education in the state. I've spent a lot of time in the Legislature doing these sorts of things and with the governor." Facilitating the transition of more two-year community college graduates to the university and developing more distance education programs are also on his list and, as Petersen says, "It just goes on and on and on."

However, he acknowledges that, "I'm pretty thinly spread. So what I'm trying to do with my staff is look at all the major areas that we have and make sure that all the people in those areas get together and work on the issues... So instead of having my presence in any individual meeting be the limiting factor in terms of getting the job done, what we need to do is maximize the ability of groups working together to carry out the major things that we've got going so I can spend more time with the chancellors, more time on fundraising, more time with the Legislature, and with our constituency in Washington."

After four years on the job, Petersen has clearly gained a mastery of its many facets. But at age 60, could he soon grow weary of its arduous demands? "I think I've got a few good years left," he opines. "As long as I figure I can make a contribution and like what I'm doing, I'm fine. I don't want to have anybody tag me on the shoulder and say ‘You're a fossil. Please move aside.' I believe I have enough sense to know when to get out and let somebody else do the job."