Petersen's Provocative Statement

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While John Petersen was away last week and reportedly chiding the referees at a Vols exhibition basketball game in Slovakia, the UT president has been drawing a lot of flak back home from disgruntled faculty members.

The source of their disgruntlement is an Aug. 9 pronouncement from Petersen defining the University's mission and delineating responsibilities for its fulfillment. In the view of president of UT-Knoxville's Faculty Senate, David Patterson, Petersen's mission statement fails to capture vital elements of what the university is all about. Patterson and many other academicians are also fearful that Petersen's delineation of responsibilities threatens to impose the authority of the UT system's hierarchy on what had been considered to be the province of autonomous campuses.

Petersen's mission statement proclaims that â“The mission of the University of Tennessee is to provide the people of Tennessee with the access to quality higher education, economic development, and enhanced quality-of-life opportunities.â” It's hard to quarrel with what's included here. But what is omitted is any mention of research, which many faculty members and campus administrators consider vital to their mission. Indeed, making UT's flagship Knoxville campus a top-tier research university has long been right at the top of Chancellor Loren Crabtree's goals, and both Petersen and Gov. Phil Bredesen have professed to share this aspiration.

Patterson believes the mission statement, which is apparently the first ever promulgated for the UT system as a whole, should incorporate a UTK mission statement's commitment to â“scientific research, humanistic scholarship, and artistic creation.â” But research is the operative word.

In the face of this criticism, UT Executive Vice President David Millhorn is quick to say, â“If it's not in the statement, it should be put in.â” This comes from a man who came to Knoxville as the university's vice president for research after heading a Genomics Research Institute at University of Cincinnati.

But faculty fear of system encroachment on the Knoxville campus' turf is deep-seated and easily provoked. In his pronouncement, Petersen states, â“While I have stressed campus autonomy throughout my tenure as president, it should be clearly understood that autonomy does not mean independence.â” And he goes on to say that â“a consolidated, collaborative effort is the most productive and effective way to fulfill our statewide obligations to deliver quality programs and services.â”

â“Consolidatedâ” is the red-flag word here and prompts Patterson to conclude in an email to all faculty members that Petersen's statement, â“appears to be a re-assertion of central control, reminiscent of the President Gilley administration.â” The ill-fated Gilley, it will be recalled, abolished the position of chancellor of the Knoxville campus and attempted to run it from the president's office amid great acrimony.

Millhorn, stresses that Petersen is seeking input on his pronouncement from the university's several campuses and institutes and that â“we're not hung up on words here, so maybe unified is a better word. But right now when you view the organization, it's more like a loose confederation, and we need to be more unified in our vision and our purpose.â”

The inclusion of Cherokee Farms on this list comes as a surprise to many because its planned development has long been considered an extension of the Knoxville campus. But as plans have gravitated toward converting it into a research park, Petersen and Millhorn have come to see its development as a system endeavor. â“Expanding the Knoxville campus isn't what this is all about. It's about building a specialized, technology-rich campus that will have research side-by-side with private enterprise,â” Millhorn says.

Still, the only facility that's firmly slated to go there is a Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAMS) that's one of four such institutes on which UT and ORNL are partnering. The other three are in Oak Ridge, and when the decision was made to locate JIAMS in Knoxville, UT faculty members from the several disciplines involved were elated because it will allow them to conduct their research in close proximity to graduate students who are important to their work. But distinguished physics professor Ward Plummer, who is JIAMS director, frets that, â“Trying to get faculty and deans to buy into this multi-disciplinary thing has taken a lot of work. If this building is managed by the system, people would back out.â” More generally, he asserts that, â“If we're going to grow a world-class university, it has to be autonomous. More micromanagement from the president's office would be a step in the wrong direction.â”

Millhorn insists that â“we're not out to micromanage JIAMS [or the other institutes]. That's not our purpose, which is to make sure that they're put in the very best environment to succeed while meeting the mission of the university.â”

In his statement, Petersen says, â“My intent is to define and clarify roles and responsibilities.â” But on the Knoxville campus, he has managed to create a lot of consternation that needs to be allayed. â" Joe Sullivan

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