UT's New President Faces a Daunting Array of Issues

Scandals, budget crises, and a long history of overall mediocrity—can Joe DiPietro reverse all that?

UT's New President Faces a Daunting Array of Issues

photo by David Luttrell

Bruce Pearl and Derek Dooley think they have it tough. Consider Dr. Joe DiPietro.

Once he wanted to be a vet and spend his time taking care of cows and horses. Now he has to be president of the University of Tennessee.

Sounds pretty swank, right? You’re head of a state university system, you get $420,000 a year plus a $20,000 housing allowance, skyboxes, a life of schmoozing and nobbing with hobs. But did we mention that you’re still digging out from the worst recession in 80 years, that the state doesn’t like to spend money, that you’re probably going to have to raise tuition, and that you’re going to have to fight for attention with a whole other state university system that has the advantage of a headquarters in Nashville? Or that the popular governor who just left office saddled you with a mandate to make UT-Knoxville a top-ranked school and passed a tough new law tying university funding to graduation rates and other uncomfortably measurable things? And that, oh yes, the last three guys who took this job all ended up being pretty much run out of town for assorted personal and professional indiscretions? Oh, and also, by the way, that you don’t even get to run the football program anymore?

Hey, congratulations!

What DiPietro is supposed to do in his new executive position is by any measure more complicated and difficult than the challenges facing Pearl, Dooley, or Pat Summitt (all of whom make more money than him). The football and basketball teams have their ups and downs, their weak recruiting years, their NCAA investigations, their fourth-quarter stumbles and last-minute lapses. But they have all in relatively recent memory competed at the highest levels of their sports. In contrast, UT’s academic standing has been a perennial laggard, mired in the second tier of public universities. It has schools and departments with national reputations—the graduate program in nuclear engineering ranked ninth in the country last year, according to U.S. News and World Report, and the undergraduate program at the School of Architecture was recently named one of the top 20 in America by DesignIntelligence—but on the whole, the system has long struggled to distinguish itself. UT-Knoxville ranked 104th overall among “National Universities” on the most recent U.S. News list, behind not only the Ivy Leaguers and usual top state schools (Berkeley, Michigan, North Carolina) but also fellow SEC institutions like Florida (53rd), Georgia (56th), and Alabama (79th). We won’t even talk about Vanderbilt.

Fortunately, in some ways, the bar has been set pretty low for the 59-year-old DiPietro, a literally egg-headed Midwesterner with a mild demeanor and an unpretentious manner. If he manages merely to not embarrass himself or the university, he will by default be the most successful UT president of the 21st century. But doing more than that, pushing the awkwardly configured UT system toward higher standards and greater prominence, will require a combination of administrative discipline, diplomatic skill, and public relations campaigning. As head of the system, DiPietro runs none of the campuses but is ultimately accountable for all of them. He is also now one of the most visible representatives of higher education in a state that has historically been reluctant to put its resources where its rhetoric is when it comes to colleges and universities. To that end, DiPietro will have to reach out to not only Tennessee’s new governor and Republican-dominated Legislature, but its citizens as well. The son of academics who grew up with a blackboard in his living room will have to make the case for education to a general public that sometimes seems ambivalent about the whole idea.

Photo with no caption

photo by David Luttrell

“I plan to be a champion for education,” says DiPietro, sitting at a small table in his old office on UT’s Agriculture campus, a few weeks before Christmas. “And I think the business community in Tennessee has smelled the coffee and realized it, too. There is a coalition of businesspeople that are saying, it’s important that we have more Tennesseans gain college educations or technical degrees so we have a workforce to employ in our businesses, so we can move this state ahead.”

But he knows very well that he won’t be able to do it alone.

All the Pretty Horse Worms

DiPietro’s career path has led in unpredictable directions ever since he first developed an adolescent interest in animal care. He grew up in Charleston, Ill., a small town about 160 miles south of Chicago. It is home to Eastern Illinois University, where DiPietro’s father was a math professor. His mother was a librarian, and education was central to the household. DiPietro’s father would often try to stump his children with math puzzles. Of DiPietro’s three siblings, one became a professor of immunology, one a food chemist, and one a computer scientist.

But DiPietro’s own interests were also shaped by the surrounding rural area. From a young age, he loved animals and was fascinated by veterinarians. Working on a local family farm, he took care of pigs and cattle, and as a teenager rented a small piece of pastureland to raise his own livestock.

“I didn’t date much in high school,” he says with a laugh. “I went to the prom twice, my mom thought that was a good thing to do. But I took care of my horses and worked a lot.”

For college, he went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a metropolis compared to Charleston. He enrolled in 1969. “I’d never had a bagel before,” he says. “My first bagel was in Champaign-Urbana. It was very much a multi-cultural experience, to go to a major land grant [university] and to not only get educated there but understand a lot more about the world.”

Local Control: Jimmy Cheek, chancellor of the UT-Knoxville campus, has direct authority over academics and athletics here. He has known President Joe DiPietro since the two were administrators together in Florida.

photo by David Luttrell

Local Control: Jimmy Cheek, chancellor of the UT-Knoxville campus, has direct authority over academics and athletics here. He has known President Joe DiPietro since the two were administrators together in Florida.

At the time, he planned to become a large-animal veterinarian. But during his first week in vet school, he was recruited by his former undergraduate adviser to work as a lab assistant. It gave DiPietro a taste of research, which he found he enjoyed, and a new focus: parasites. (The former adviser was a parasitologist.) “What was really just an effort to make ends meet and a little bit of pocket change ended up changing my career path,” DiPietro says.

But not immediately. Although he worked in the lab all through school, DiPietro still went into practice after earning his doctorate in veterinary medicine, just to see if it was what he wanted to do. “I realized in those days, in the ’70s, you spent a lot of time treating internal parasites in livestock,” he says, gesturing toward a jar in his office full of ring worms from a horse. “And small animals, too, for that matter. So I thought after two years, I would like to try to go back.”

DiPietro returned to the University of Illinois to do his master’s work, specializing in large-animal parasites. He was hired onto the faculty at Illinois, where he stayed until 1996, eventually becoming associate dean of the veterinary program. At Illinois, he met his wife, Deborah, an environmental educator with degrees in forestry and biology. They’ve been married 36 years and have three grown children, ages 26 to 32. Deborah is now retired and spends her free time training the DiPietros’ Shetland sheep dog for competitions. From Urbana-Champaign, DiPietro moved to the University of Florida to become dean of the veterinary school in Gainesville. Even as an administrator, he continued to teach a parasitology class. It wasn’t until coming to Tennessee in 2006 that he finally gave up his classroom role.

“At Illinois I maintained my research program full-bore and taught there as an associate dean, which was pretty doable because I had the system around me,” he says. “I had technicians, I had a lab, I had graduate students, we had post-docs, and we could keep that thing rocking and rolling. When I moved to Florida, I knew the job really demanded focus full-time. But I thought, keep your finger on the classroom, at least.”

He was recruited to UT as what was then called vice president for agriculture, heading up the Agriculture Institute. The job title was changed to chancellor last year. It put DiPietro over the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the College of Veterinary Medicine, 10 agricultural research centers across the state, and the Agricultural Extension offices in every Tennessee county, which advise farmers, 4-H groups and other organizations. DiPietro says the reach of the Extension programs helped prepare him for the political dimensions of the UT presidency, because it put him in touch with local leaders all over the state. Before coming to Knoxville in February 2006, DiPietro hadn’t spent much time in Tennessee, apart from a few summers as a small boy when his father was doing graduate work at Vanderbilt.

For someone who clearly enjoyed the research and teaching aspects of his earlier academic years, the move into the president’s office might seem like a difficult one. He says he loved running the Agriculture Institute and is close to many people there, and he thought hard about whether to apply for the system job when it came open after the abrupt departure of John Petersen in 2009. Eventually he decided to, because he thought he could do it well.

“I like administration because I like helping people,” he says. It’s the kind of thing politicians always say, but DiPietro says it with an understated matter-of-factness that drains it of any sense of pandering. “I like building teams, and I like the sense of getting it done together.”

A Political Structure

Grip ’n’ Grin: A major part of the UT president’s job is finessing the state Legislature. DiPietro met with state Rep. Beth Harwell this month shortly after she was elected speaker of the state House.

Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee

Grip ’n’ Grin: A major part of the UT president’s job is finessing the state Legislature. DiPietro met with state Rep. Beth Harwell this month shortly after she was elected speaker of the state House.

Warren Neel wishes DiPietro all the luck in the world. But he is not sure any UT president can get at the heart of what he thinks needs to change in Tennessee higher education.

Neel speaks from experience. Now executive director of the university’s Corporate Governance Center, he has in the past served both as dean of UT-Knoxville’s College of Business Administration and, under former Gov. Don Sundquist, as state commissioner of finance and administration. In a book published just as DiPietro was selected as president last fall, Neel draws on his long years in academia and government to raise serious questions about the way Tennessee does higher education.

In his memoir, The Accidental Dean, he traces the modern history of the UT system. The overriding theme is that its current shape owes more to politics than academics. The Board of Trustees is appointed by the governor, and Neel says he learned in Nashville that those positions are among the political plums most desired by major campaign donors. “What’s the rationale?” Neel asks. “Well, the rationale could very well be that, ‘I’ve got access to skyboxes, and I’ve got such political clout that if your daughter wants to live in such-and-such a dorm, I can call over and get her a location.’” He says he would prefer to see the governor nominate Trustees who would then be subject to public hearings in the state House and Senate’s educational committees.

For decades, the president’s office itself was occupied by men with political backgrounds. Andrew Holt, president from 1959 to 1970, was a former head of the Tennessee Education Association and National Education Association who was well versed in the ways of state government. And he recruited many of his top administrators directly from Nashville, including former finance and administration commission Edward J. Boling, who succeeded him as president and served until 1988, and Joe Johnson, president from 1991 to 1999. Between their terms came the brief tenure of former Governor (and current Senator) Lamar Alexander, who was hired as president by Trustees whom he himself had appointed.

Neel has good things to say about this lineage, calling them “very honorable public policy people.” But he thinks political sensitivities have hampered the development of a first-class higher education system. Within UT, he says the need to balance the interests of the different campuses has kept Knoxville from developing into a true flagship school. He notes in the book that early in his time as dean, he was cautioned not to even use the word “flagship” in referring to Knoxville. “[T]he visible evidence was that all efforts were geared to keeping the power of political presence in Nashville assured and required the mission of each campus to be closely aligned,” he writes, “not for the Knoxville campus to aspire to become uniquely different from the other campuses. Only later did I understand that UT Chattanooga was acquired with the agreement that it would not be a branch campus, but treated in the same fashion as the Knoxville campus.”

And if internal tensions aren’t enough, UT also has to compete for funding, students, and resources with the state’s Board of Regents schools, which include universities like East Tennessee State, Middle Tennessee State, and Austin Peay, as well as community colleges and technology centers. They have their own complicated political structure, and in turn both the Regents system and UT are overseen by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission—a board that, Neel notes, includes the secretary of state and the state comptroller and treasurer, all but guaranteeing some political calculation in its decisions.

The result, Neel says, is too many colleges trying to do the same things, spreading both students and faculty thin. “We have six engineering schools in the state of Tennessee,” he says. “Does that mean we’ve got a nationally recognized engineering program? It would be very difficult to do that.”

But Neel acknowledges that serious changes to the bifurcated structure are unlikely any time soon. It would take commitment from a governor, the Legislature, and officials at both UT and the Board of Regents. DiPietro, for his part, says it’s not an issue he’s going to push. He’s not even convinced it’s a problem. (In general, mentions of Neel’s book provoke polite smiles from university officials, but not much more.)

“If you go across the United States of America, you’ll find different models in every state,” DiPietro says. “One can argue it ought to be one way or another. But typically what happens in a given state—having worked in three of them now—is there’s an evolution that makes it happen the way it does.”

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen convened a task force a few years ago to make recommendations for improving higher education, and its proposals left the two systems in place. But they did lead to Bredesen’s signature higher-ed legislation, the Complete College Tennessee Act. The bill, which passed last year, changes the funding formula for colleges and universities to reward higher graduation rates, and makes it easier for students to transfer within the state, both between Regents and UT campuses and from community colleges to four-year schools.

“It says to a university, we’ll reward you if you become more efficient at the business of graduating students,” DiPietro says of the law. “That’s a way to maximize the efficiency of the various institutions, UT as well as the Board of Regents colleges.”

Where the Chalk Hits the Board

But it’s one thing to talk about “maximizing efficiency,” it’s another to translate that into the campus-life realities of students, faculty, and classrooms.

On the Knoxville campus, that responsibility will fall to Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, who has known DiPietro for 15 years. Cheek was already at Florida when DiPietro arrived. For a while both were college deans in Gainesville, and then Cheek was promoted to senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, making him DiPietro’s boss. They stayed in touch after DiPietro moved to Knoxville, and when Cheek was considering applying for the Knoxville chancellor’s job in 2008, he consulted with DiPietro.

“I said, ‘Joe, what do you think about Tennessee?’” says Cheek, a native Texan. “Quite frankly I didn’t know much about the University of Tennessee. He said, ‘It’s a great place, it’s a great university, and you should really think about it.’”

Cheek was likewise supportive of DiPietro’s selection as president. “I’ve watched him around the state,” Cheek says, “and he’s got very good people skills with people all over the state, from very highly educated, very affluent people to very poor people who have very little education. He values every single person that he interacts with.”

But Cheek seems comfortable with the more muscular role chancellors are now expected to play (including in athletics; he was the one who had to decide how to deal with Coach Bruce Pearl’s NCAA violations).

“Joe sees the role of the chancellor as being in control of his or her operations, under the guidance of the president and the board,” Cheek says. “Certainly there needs to be transparency about what we’re trying to get accomplished, but we’re accountable for it.”

Solid as a ...?: The Rock on the Knoxville campus was painted to welcome DiPietro on his first day as president. Many on campus hope he will bring stability that has been missing from the office for a decade.

Photo by courtesy of University of Tennessee

Solid as a ...?: The Rock on the Knoxville campus was painted to welcome DiPietro on his first day as president. Many on campus hope he will bring stability that has been missing from the office for a decade.

One of the things Cheek will be accountable for is another goal set by Bredesen: to make UT Knoxville a top 25 public research university by the end of the decade. That status is usually measured by the amount of money spent on research, from all sources—state, federal, grants, etc.—as well as the number of doctorates awarded and the national standing of faculty members. The good news is that Knoxville may not have far to go. A 2009 ranking by the Center for Measuring University Performance at Arizona State University put the campus at 27th among public schools, a big move up from 48th in 2007. The biggest factor was a more-than-doubling of research grants in 2009 versus 2008, to a total of $179 million. And in just stating the ambition, Bredesen made clear the prime position of Knoxville within the UT system, regardless of whether anyone dares to call it a flagship.

“I think in the next year or two we’ll get to $200 [million], to $215, maybe $220,” Cheek says. “So that’s a growing revenue piece. We’ve got to also work on private fund-raising. We just completed a $1 billion campaign for the system; for the campus, it was $750 million. That’s a lot of money. But it’s still not enough.”

Joan Heminway, a professor at UT’s College of Law who is president of the Knoxville Faculty Senate, says she thinks faculty themselves are going to have to get more involved in fund-raising—not just through the traditional avenues of grant-seeking, but also through alumni contacts, public-private partnerships, any outside source of support.

“I actually believe there are alumni donors out there and other donors out there who can do more,” Heminway says. “We do have a strong allegiance with our alumni here, and it’s not just about football and the orange T. I think they really do value the education they got here.”

And she thinks having a new president will help restore some public confidence in the university’s leadership, which has been unavoidably damaged by the turmoil of the past 10 years. “I think he has the credibility,” Heminway says of DiPietro, “I think he has the personality, I think he has the love of the place, even though he’s only been here four years. He may very well be able to make some cases that other people have not been able to make.”

***

DiPietro clearly sees the job as his final act. If he stays in it for six years, which Cheek thinks is the minimum needed to provide stability to the system, he’ll be 65. This is not a stepping stone. And however far removed he now is from the classroom and lab, he says that for him, the focus remains the same.

“I like being around students,” he says. “I like being around faculty. I went through all the faculty ranks at Illinois. I know what it is to be in a department and be at the water cooler and interact with faculty and students and pour the coffee pot.

“There are moments where I might get a little melancholy about the fact that I no longer really have that faculty lifestyle. But I’ve chosen consciously to funnel my efforts and energies into making universities, campuses, colleges, and institutes more successful. I think administration facilitates faculty, so they can get the work done, help the staff, make students learn what they need to know. And improve their lives.”

© 2011 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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