The resignation of University of Tennessee Chancellor Loren Crabtree, following months of fundamental disagreement with President John Petersen, comes as a disappointment to those who believed Crabtree was an effective and visionary leader of the Knoxville campus. But the president's prerogative is to win in any arguments about the inner workings of the university system, and Petersen additionally had the apparent backing of the UT Board of Trustees on disputed issues of system and campus "governance," leaving Crabtree little alternative but to walk, with or without a push from the president or the trustees.
Encouragingly, Petersen appointed Jan Simek interim chancellor, making that announcement the Monday after Crabtree's sudden resignation. Crabtree was among those who recommended Simek to fill the job on an interim basis until a new chancellor is found, probably months down the road.
Simek has been serving as Crabtree's chief of staff. An anthropologist, he was also interim dean of the college of architecture and design during a search for a permanent dean, and has reputedly served well at every post since coming to UT more than 20 years ago.
Simek's appointment has met with mostly approval from faculty and present and past administrators, including former President Joe Johnson and former Chancellor Bill Snyder, each of whom called him a good, logical choice to assume the leadership post.
Both Johnson and Snyder voiced surprise that Crabtree resigned over the governance questions, saying they felt that he and Petersen were resolving their differences when they agreed to a compromise posture and were quoted several weeks ago as saying, "We'll work it out."
System vs. campus governance has been controversial since 1969, when the system was created, Snyder says, and Johnson recalls that the system has held a dominant governing role over many campus issues since Andy Holt formed the system and served as its first president, with the inclusion of the then-newly created UT-Chattanooga and the Nashville campus of UT that existed at the time.
"The approach has worked and will work well in the future. The president and chancellors will have to work together, and they will," says Johnson.
In an important way, Crabtree was simply discharging his responsibility by taking up for the Knoxville campus and its faculty, but his rhetoric sometimes reflected too strongly and negatively on the presidency of Petersen, who could not help but take some of those references personally.
Though considered generally popular in the view of the faculty, the trustees, students and alumni, Petersen, president since 2004, and Crabtree, the former provost who's been chancellor since 2003, have made enemies in the UT community. Only by doing nothing could they have avoided perturbing some people in that academic and administrative cauldron. Johnson and Snyder consider them "both good men" in their words, and Johnson credits them with accomplishments virtually across the board in improving the UT and Knoxville campus picture during their respective tenures.
"There are so many good things going on at UT and in the system," says Johnson, citing the fund-raising prowess of the Petersen/Crabtree tandem in particular, that he is optimistic about the university's overall future.
A search committee will be established to seek Crabtree's successor, but there is no consensus in the UT community about whether the next chancellor will be picked internally or nationally. The latter is how the search will be designed to perform, but candidates from inside will be considered. There is as yet little speculation that a candidate has already been identified by Petersen or the board, but that possibility always exists, and the search could be conducted strictly for show.
However the current scenario plays out, Petersen has to be given credit for putting a person of Simek's caliber into the interim chancellorship. His presidency continues to show promise, in spite of the glitch that arose between two strong personalities.
Johnson's optimism is fueled by his opinion of the president, which hasn't changed with the chancellor's resignation. "We have a wonderful person in John Petersen," he says.
That's a powerfully positive assessment, but it's hard not to concur. Time will tell.