UT Exodus

The lamentable removal of Loren Crabtree as the University of Tennessee's chancellor could presage an exodus on the part of other top Knoxville campus administrators. And by sharpening the schism between the UT system's hierarchy and its flagship Knoxville campus, President John Petersen has handicapped the search for a successor capable of fulfilling Crabtree's lofty aspirations for the university.

In naming Crabtree's chief of staff, Jan Simek, as interim chancellor, Petersen passed over the Knoxville campus' second-in-command, Provost Robert Holub. Petersen and Holub are known to have been critical of each other, and it will be surprising if UT doesn't lose the capabilities Holub brought to the university when he was recruited in 2006 from his prior post as dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley.

Another prize Crabtree recruit whose likelihood of staying on appears in doubt is Vice Chancellor for Research Brad Fenwick. Fenwick held a comparable post at Virginia Tech before joining UT last September. All of the skirmishing between campus and system administrators reportedly came as a rude awakening to him almost from the day of his arrival.

Already on the departee list is the Dean of the College of Engineering Way Kuo, who also brings distinction to the university by dint of being one of its two members of the National Academy of Engineering. The City University of Hong Kong announced in November that Kuo, a native of Taiwan, had been selected as its new president. This may be a career advancement for Kuo, who has yet to announce his departure from UT and remains on the job here. But Kuo is also known to have had his frustrations with the system. Among them: delays in the selection of a site for—and then with the construction of—a new Electrical Engineering and Computer Science building that was funded in large part by a $17.5 million donation in 2005 from Min Kao, another Taiwan native who founded the global positioning systems giant Garmin.

Frustrations with new facilities planning and execution are also high on the grievance list of Petersen's most strident critic, distinguished physics professor Ward Plummer. In Plummer's case these center on the still undetermined site of a new Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM) that Plummer has spearheaded. A $20 million congressional appropriation in 2005 for construction of the new facility with the promise of matching state funds to equip it held promise of bringing a major research collaboration with ORNL to the UT campus, which faculty members and their graduate students could more readily utilize than three other UT-ORNL joint institutes that are located in Oak Ridge. But the siting of JIAM has gotten caught up in the swirl of controversy surrounding planning for and control over the new Cherokee Campus that is due to go on UT's erstwhile dairy farm just off Alcoa Higway.

Plummer, who is UT's sole member of the prestigious National Academy of Science, didn't want JIAM to go there but became resigned to it provided work got underway by the end of last year. But a specific site has yet to be selected, and Plummer may well carry through on his threat to leave UT as a consequence.

All that said, and for all that has not been said about why Crabtree was removed, Petersen may have had compelling reasons. Behind the public cloak of "philosophical differences," Petersen reportedly told faculty senate leaders at a private meeting that Crabtree had incurred Gov. Phil Bredesen's ire for advocating more funding for UT than 2008's lean state budgetary year would allow.

In the last analysis, the UT president is accountable to the governor, who is chairman of a board of trustees that is now mostly comprised of Bredesen appointees. In his four years at the UT helm, Petersen has done an outstanding job of gaining Bredesen's trust and respect. And both Bredesen and the trustees have a more hierarchical view of the president's role than the collegiate "shared governance" model that is favored on the campus.

At the same time, Petersen did a good job of placating faculty senate leaders at their meeting, both with assurances about preserving a high degree of campus autonomy and with his choice of Simek as interim chancellor. Simek is a 54-year-old professor of anthropology who commands a lot of faculty respect.

Friction between the system and the knoxville campus has been almost endemic at UT ever since then-President Andy Holt forged a statewide institution in the 1960s without relinquishing control of its home base. But it is most unfortunate that two very good men, Loren Crabtree and John Petersen, could not overcome it and work harmoniously together.