The Complex Job of Being President of the University of Tennessee

“University president” is one of those important-sounding job titles that means different things in different places. It almost always includes a lot of politicking and fund-raising, but the details of the role depend entirely on the structure of the university. And the University of Tennessee has a fairly odd structure.

It comprises three regular college campuses—Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Martin—along with the Health Science Center in Memphis, home to UT’s medical school; the Space Institute in Tullahoma; a Public Service Institute; and assorted affiliate programs (the UT-Battelle joint management of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a Nashville campus that specializes in social work, the Agricultural Extension offices in all of the state’s 95 counties). The campuses are each under the direct authority of a local chancellor, with another chancellor—until recently, Joe DiPietro—heading up the Knoxville-based Institute of Agriculture. The president oversees all of that, but his only hands-on authority is over the chancellors and administrators who run the various programs, as well as the system-level bureaucracy. For a lifelong academic like DiPietro, who maintained student office hours even as chancellor, it is a long way from the classroom or the research lab.

And for all its undeniable perks, it is not a particularly glamorous job, or one well-suited to an imperial temperament. During the past checkered decade, one UT president after another has struggled with the confines of the office, behaving in self-aggrandizing ways more typical of a Division I coach or a Wall Street executive. There were the romantic peccadilloes that tripped up J. Wade Gilley (president, 1999-2001) and the alleged abuses of UT aircraft, credit cards, and other monies by John Shumaker (2002-2003). Maybe more tellingly, John D. Petersen (2004-2009) seemed frustrated by his lack of direct control of the Knoxville campus, and clashed with popular Chancellor Loren Crabtree. Petersen more or less forced Crabtree out in 2008, but in doing so he undermined his own support among faculty and campus-level administrators. That, combined with a publicized clash between Petersen’s wife and a high-profile UT donor, led to Petersen’s own resignation just a year later.

The Petersen-Crabtree fight highlighted tensions built into the relationship between a president and a chancellor both housed on the same campus, in the same building. Before hiring their fourth president in 10 years, members of the UT Board of Trustees decided to clarify the respective roles as much as possible. In many ways, Crabtree got the last word in the struggle between campus and system control. Crabtree’s chief of staff, Jan Simek, was named interim chancellor after Crabtree left, and then became interim president following Petersen’s departure. Simek, an anthropology professor, streamlined the system-level bureaucracy and made a point of giving campuses more authority over academics, administration, and budgeting. His biggest symbolic move was to turn supervision of the Knoxville athletics department over to the Knoxville chancellor. The power and prestige of the football program would no longer accrue to the president’s office. (The transfer happened after Lane Kiffin’s brief tenure, when both power and prestige had been somewhat tarnished.)

All of which means that DiPietro will have a different relationship with Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek than any of his predecessors had with earlier chancellors. It may help that the two men have known each other for years—they were in administration together at the University of Florida before first DiPietro and then Cheek came to Knoxville—and seem well disposed toward each other, if not quite close friends. It may also help that DiPietro does not seem like someone inclined to waste much time in turf battles. Having served as a chancellor himself, he says he respects the boundaries of the jobs.

“This organization has lots of moving parts and is pretty complex,” DiPietro says. “But it will work the best if campuses are accountable but have an independent approach to what they want to do.”

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