cover_story (2007-13)

“My role is to build those enterprises” —President John Peterson on UT’s varied components

“He told me he’d be president of the system and not president of Knoxville, and he’s done that” —Loren Crabtree, chancellor of the Knoxville campus of UT

“In general, he’s doing a very good job” —Louis Gross, president of the Knoxville campus’ Faculty Senate

“John Petersen understands the value of the [ORNL-UT] relationship and has been a terrific partner” —Jeff Wadsworth, ORNL director

John Petersen is the president of the University of Tennessee. He's been the UT president for almost three years. It seems worth setting that out right from the start because he's kept such a low profile that his name doesn't appear often in the news.

That's not such a bad thing, when Petersen's presidency is compared--contrasted really--with those of the last two persons who were in that position. They were each drummed out of office after less than two years apiece of high-profile controversy.

Petersen has accomplished more in his time at UT than predecessors Wade Gilley, then John Shumaker, combined. An important part of that accomplishment has been in restoring the public trust , vital to the UT presidency, which was lost during the Gilley and Shumaker tenures.

The positive impact that Petersen has had on UT is hard to overestimate, at least in the view of Big Jim Haslam, the former long-time member and king of clout on the UT Board of Directors, who left the board last year when his last appointment expired.

Haslam was on the board when Petersen was appointed to resurrect UT's sullied image. "Even before the interviews, I thought his background and academic profile fit our needs better than any of the other applicants," Haslam says, "and he has exceeded my expectations, even though they were high."

Haslam's assessment of Petersen adds to a litany of adulation that emerged in interviews with faculty, administrators, alumni, and leaders of Knoxville, where the UT system's flagship campus and the president's office reside. Only the mildest of criticisms of Petersen could be coaxed from anyone interviewed, including some faculty members who are ordinarily skeptical and quick to criticize any administration at any given time.

The president himself tends to deflect praise and presents himself with a bit of self-deprecating humor. When it's pointed out that his last name is frequently misspelled, with an O instead of the second E, he smiles wryly and says his wife, Carol, spells it correctly now after 37 years of marriage.

Aside from the occasional joke, Petersen concentrates his comments on his goals for the UT system, which includes campuses at Chattanooga and Martin, a health-sciences center at Memphis and a space center at Tullahoma.

"My role is to build those enterprises," Petersen says, using a term that ordinarily applies more to businesses than to academic institutions, where he has risen to administrative heights from his beginnings as a professor of chemistry. The reference to "enterprises" is telling. In discussing his presidency, his admirers in state and local government, particularly, single out his apparent business acumen as a plus.

That businesslike approach is fully appreciated by chancellors at the separate UT campuses, which are granted autonomy under the general guidance of a president who is willing to delegate authority over nearly all campus matters.

Petersen's pledge to Loren Crabtree, the Knoxville campus chancellor who suffered through the Gilley and Shumaker presidencies, likely kept Crabtree, a popular Knoxville figure, from heading elsewhere. He was being actively recruited by other universities, but he chose to stay when Petersen came to town. They had been nodding acquaintances in the past, Crabtree says, as he and Petersen were provosts at the same time--Petersen at the University of Connecticut and Crabtree at Colorado State. But in their first session at UT, Crabtree says, "He told me he'd be president of the system and not president of Knoxville," Crabtree says, "and he's done that.

"We meet weekly or more often, and we have open discussions.... He's honest and straightforward. We have our arguments and disagreements," Crabtree says, but those don't detract from a good working relationship, he says.

Roger Brown, who was hired in 2005 by Petersen to be the chancellor at UTC, also recalls that Petersen's systemwide focus was brought up in their first interview session. "He has stayed completely within what he said he'd allow UTC to develop within the Chattanooga culture and not be just a pale imitation of the Knoxville campus."

A Bristol, Tenn., native and former teacher in the Knox County school system, Brown spent most of his higher-education career in the North Carolina system, where he was a UNC campus provost. He's glad to be back in Tennessee, he says, and happy to be working for a president with Petersen's temperament and management style.

"By nature, as a scientist, he's not used to a lot of posturing. He doesn't do any grandstanding," Brown says of Petersen. "He's been a very, very busy man [at UT]. He has a deliberate, clear list of priorities, and he follows that list, and he's been very successful in achieving them.

"It's a tough job, even before some of his predecessors lost the support of the state," Brown says, but he explains that the nature of the job has been made somewhat easier by Petersen's style of administration. "He's established a rapport with the governor and the Legislature. It's evident," Brown says.

Andrea Loughry, a UT board member for seven years and the current vice chair, is a former professor at Middle Tennessee State University and is retired ("protired," she calls it) from the insurance and banking industry. She was also chair of the search committee that selected Petersen to succeed Eli Fly, the acting president who took the reins after Shumaker was canned for his scandalous spending practices in the wake of Gilley's firing for his lack of personal and professional judgment in the promotion of a female staff member with whom he had developed a relationship that was deemed too close.

Ironically, Petersen's compensation package of around $500,000 is less than half what Shumaker negotiated from UT. Shumaker was touted as the second highest-paid public university president in America at the time, but it was understood that the board wasn't going to pay that much again unless performance was proven on the ground in the system. Even so, Petersen was attracted more by UT's potential than by money.

Loughry says Petersen "had the competencies and met the qualifications we were looking for" and the committee and the entire board were subsequently impressed with his personality.

Petersen is unprepossessing in appearance. Greying and a bit on the stocky side at about 5' 9" (He was a catcher in baseball, and he's built like one.), he wears nicely tailored but dull suits and avoids flashy ties. From the physical impressions his persona gives off at age 59, he could be selling shoes or widgets as well as running a major public university.

But there's a nearly permanent sparkle in his eye, his facial expressions retain a hint of irony, and his intelligence is as apparent as his wit and his reticence at talking about himself, rather than UT. The president's office on the sixth floor of the Andy Holt Tower has no view, other than the athletic training complex and a corner of Thompson Boling Arena. Petersen walks to the window and explains. The offices were built in Ed Boling's presidency, he says, when the football practice fields were out there for Boling to scan with field glasses. "And he did," Petersen says. The training center replaced the practice facility, and there's   little to attract the eye, unlike the other executive offices, where views of the Tennessee River and mountains to the south are spectacular. He says he doesn't have time to look out the window anyway.

"He has a razor-sharp mind, focused and grounded," Loughry says. "His energy level is absolutely amazing. He engages people without bouncing off of them. We made a good choice and he's stayed a good choice."

From an alumni standpoint, Debbie Diddle, president of the UT National Alumni Association, echoes Loughry's sentiments. A former member of the Knoxville Chancellor's Associates organization, Diddle also served on the search committee. She says there were a lot of qualified candidates, but the process that led to Petersen's selection "worked really well." Petersen, Diddle says, is "not as gregarious as some, but he's not an introvert.

"We held our breath for about a year and a make sure we weren't making another mistake, but he got out and went to all 95 counties, addressing alumni and others, and he listened. That was important," Diddle says.

Besides building relationships with the Tennessee alums and the general public, Diddle says, "He's built a really good team."

Petersen's hiring of chancellors and his recruiting efforts toward establishing top administrative staff and distinguished faculty members were cited by several of those interviewed. An example cited by some is the attraction of Robert Holub, who was hired by Crabtree, with Petersen's support, to serve as the Knoxville campus's provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. Holub, a recognized academician and administrator, was dean of undergraduate arts and sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the nation's most prestigious public university campuses.

Among the faculty in Knoxville, Louis Gross, a professor of ecology and mathematics, is the current chair of the UT Faculty Senate, where challenges to the administration and its leadership are tossed around on a regular basis.

Gross says Petersen's avowed aim of improving the system by reorganization has been slow to materialize. And Gross gripes that the Athletic Department on the Knoxville campus reports directly to the president, rather than to the chancellor, as athletic departments do on the other UT campuses. That different treatment grates on Gross and some other faculty members, Gross says, and they went to talk with Petersen about it. "He listened," Gross says, "and he told us he wanted some time to think about it." Not long afterward, Gross says, Petersen told him he'd thought about it, and there would be no change.

Then there's the email system. Gross says at Petersen's direction, the email system was consolidated systemwide, rather than left to the individual campuses as it previously was, and the result has been "total disaster."

Gross says "emails sometimes come in months after they were sent." He says complaints about the problem have produced no solution. "You can't imagine how important email is to a university," Gross says, adding that he can't imagine that the issue isn't taken more seriously at the administrative level.

One reorganization move that has taken place to Gross's satisfaction, has been to move human resources under campus control instead of system control. He says he believes that is a distinct improvement, and so is the institution of regular meetings with faculty representatives from the various campuses.

"In general," Gross says, "he's doing a very good job."

Gavin Townsend, Gross's counterpart at UTC, is even more upbeat about Petersen's presidency, saying that the president's "adaptiveness and openness, along with his enthusiasm and dedication, mark him as a fine president for UT." A professor of art history, Townsend chairs the UTC Faculty Senate.

Some people at the university and in government characterize Petersen's rapport with Gov. Phil Bredesen as a natural development. They both come from science and education backgrounds, were the first in their families to graduate from college, and both see economic development in Tennessee as hinging on improvements in education and on the exploitation, as well as the excellence, of scientific research in the state.

As UT's president, Petersen also serves as chairman of the board of UT-Battelle, the public-private consortium that operates Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

It was the feeling that UT is on the cusp of a breakthrough into the elite circle of research universities that led Petersen to apply for the UT presidency, he says, although he says he was more than happy at UConn.

"Where else would you want to go if you wanted to influence the national agenda?" he asks rhetorically. "[ORNL] is the best national lab in the U.S. right now," he says, "with the research tools such as the Spallation Neutron Source and the Super Computer" that give it an edge over most other similar laboratories worldwide. The partnership arrangement at ORNL allows UT to build, and lead, other research partnerships in the region, nationwide and worldwide, he says, and he sees an important facet of his role as fostering such partnerships.

Mayor Bill Haslam of Knoxville says the city is fortunate to be in its position, vís a vís UT and ORNL, and to "have a governor who gets it and a UT president who gets it as well--the connection between technology and the academic world and economic development."

Haslam says that "the city and UTK are married, obviously. What's good for one is good for the other. I think John understands how important it is for UT to be a competitive university."

He says Petersen and ORNL Director Jeff Wadsworth are routinely "called in to help recruit business and industry" to the Knoxville area. "And they come," he says, whether the businesses being sought are large or small.

Petersen also meets with Haslam, Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership President Mike Edwards and other local officials monthly to review community issues. Haslam and Ragsdale both say they appreciate the opportunity to get together. "There's open discussion," Ragsdale says, explaining that there are many topics that require or benefit from interaction between the university and the city and county.

"It's a pleasure to work with him," Ragsdale says and pauses before continuing, "He's a fun person to be around."

He's also very competitive, according to Crabtree, who says Petersen loves sports and continues to pursue some sort of game in much of his offtime. "He plays cards almost anywhere with his family members or anyone who's interested," Crabtree says. Petersen acknowledges his competitiveness, rooted in his youth in Los Angeles, where he played "all sports" growing up and in high school. Volleyball, he says, was his only collegiate sport. He was a baseball catcher for a brief spell in the minor leagues, but his academic career and real life took over from sports, he suggests.

He married his wife, Carol, in 1970, got his Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry from Cal State, Santa Barbara in 1975 and taught at Clemson for 13 years, rising to head its Chemistry Department, and became associate dean for research in its College of Sciences. He took a year away in the mid-1980s to serve as a research fellow and guest professor at the University of Regensburg, in southern Bavaria, then in West Germany.

His wife and two children, Melissa, now 29, and Andrew, 28, became fluent in German in that year, but he says he was too busy in the academic environment, conducted for his benefit in English, to learn as much of the language as he would have liked.

After Clemson, Petersen was Dean of the College of Science at Wayne State in the late 1990s, before heading to Uconn in 2000.

The UT system, he says, is an ideal size. "I wouldn't want to be president of the University of California. I'd be a bureaucrat," Petersen says, with its multiple campuses all competing for funding and grants. In Tennessee, the UT campuses complement each other. "All of the pieces contribute to the system," and there are elements of strong outreach in agriculture, with its extension services,   and in public affairs. "Every legislator is a stakeholder. We're in every one of the 95 counties."

He says that makes the lobbying a little easier, and he has Bredesen's backing on much of his budget agenda. The annual budget was up $47.5 million last year from the year before, bringing the system's total budget above $1.5 billion for the first time and providing for minimal cost increases for the system's 50,000-plus students.

In his annual report, Petersen lists UT's accomplishments as including the crafting of a strategic plant to increase student access to UT and success at its schools, to emphasize that "the end product of research must enhance economic development in Tennessee and beyond," to enlarge the number of citizens it serves and to prepare its students to succeed in the global community.

Those are large orders, but Petersen, calling himself "the partnership president," exudes confidence that his approaches to those strategic goals are on target.

Besides the state's funding, he is stimulating giving to the university, which has climbed from $96 million in '04, when he arrived, to $150 million in '05, to $300 million last year.

When the gifts are substantial, in the million-dollar-plus range, he says he is conscious of trying "to conform to the interests of the donor" in doling out the money within the system. That takes consultation and thought, but he says he believes it is worthwhile in stimulating further giving.

Jack Britt, the UT executive vice president and former vice president for agriculture, who is retiring at the end of this month, says Petersen's "boldness" is a key to his productive interaction with donors. He hosted Petersen in the president's first campus visit and "got the impression he had the leadership skills to make a difference here," and he's been further impressed as the presidency progresses.

"He has the willingness to get out and meet with all kinds of people across the state, whether it's a Rotary Club in Winchester or some service club in Jackson or whatever, whoever."

In Knoxville, Petersen and his wife have been active in community service. He's on the symphony board; she's on the opera board. She advocates for the UT Music School, and works with Habitat for Humanity. They both participate broadly in civic affairs. On civic involvement, Petersen says simply, "I do that because I live in the community," as if that would be an obvious motivation for anyone who lives here.

"He's made a lot of friends here," says Crabtree, who says the president's low-key personality makes him very effective in small groups but less likely than some university presidents to attract broad public attention to himself.

"He and Carol have small dinner parties," Crabtree says, as a way to get to know Knoxvillians and forge friendships.

One such friend is Larry Martin, the retired banking figure who is serving as city of Knoxville's senior director of finance and deputy to the mayor.

"It goes back to when John first came. We hit it off, and it's a friendship I value. We see each other socially, and for John and Carol and their kids, it [the UT presidency] is a family effort," Martin says.

On Petersen's reputed competitiveness, Martin has a first-hand observation: "We sit behind them at basketball games, and he can be awful rough on the referees. So can Carol, for that matter. They get right into it."

Like so many others, Martin relates to Petersen, he says, because "he's down to earth, he's easy to talk to, he's a good thinker, and he has a good business mind ."

Mintha Roach, the president of the Knoxville Utilities Board and the current chair of the Chancellor's Associates here, has a similar view of the UT chief. She says she's gotten to know Petersen pretty well. "I think he knows what he's doing," she says. "While he's from the academic community, he's running the university like a business."

Jim Haslam says the background Petersen brought to UT was fundamental to his success. "He had experience at a big public university at Connecticut, and he had experience at a school in the south at Clemson.

To Loughry, the UT board chair, "He embodies southern characteristics [even though he's originally from California]." She then says, laughing, that no region of the country "has the patent on good manners," such as Petersen displays.

"He likes people and treats them well," says Chancellor Crabtree, explaining why he believes that Petersen's popularity is growing throughout the university and the state.

"It doesn't take any more time to be nice to people than it does to be rude to people, but it's a lot more fun to be nice to people," Petersen says, "and you never know when you'll meet them again down the road."

"He understands his constituencies," says Jim Haslam, "and there are a bunch. The Legislature and state executive, the students, the faculty, the donors--he's especially good with the students--and he understands the role of athletics. Let me repeat that," Haslam says, and he does. "His legacy is not going to be national championships in athletics, as much as he loves sports. His legacy will be in establishing this as a major research institution."

Digest all of what Petersen has to say and how he says it, where his targets are for UT's future, and what sort of cooperation he's been enlisting, and you'd have to believe that such a legacy is within his capability.