The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Vol Vision: Pursuit of the Top 25

Archived Frequently Asked Questions

Posted Fall 2010

How did the Top 25 quest come to be?

In January 2010, the state challenged UT to become a Top 25 public research university in a decade. UT accepted this challenge, knowing that the journey will be as important as the end result and that improvements we make will:

What universities do we consider the nation's "Top 25" and how did we arrive at these?

UT Knoxville is ranked 47th on U.S. News and World Report's 2011 list of the nation's top public institutions. The Top 25 Task Force deliberated carefully and extensively to define the list of universities against which UTK should compare itself and its performance over time. To compile our benchmark list schools, we looked not only at U.S. News and World Report, but also rankings by the Center for Measuring University Performance, the Association of American Universities membership, and information from strategic planning documentation at the University of Kentucky and the University of Florida. This helped us to identify the 27 public research universities ranked above us. These universities were then divided into three groups—our "aspiration group," our "target group," and our "current peer group."

Chart showing Benchmark Schools

Why do we use U.S. News & World Report's ranking list as a benchmark list?

While this ranking is only one gauge of the quality of an academic institution, it is widely recognized, cited and provides a reference point that is accepted by a national audience. This context contributed to UTK's initiative to build a plan for becoming a Top 25 public research university.

To compile its rankings, U.S. News & World Report uses "widely accepted indicators of excellence," including assessment by administrators at peer institutions; freshman retention rate; six-year graduate rate; class size, faculty salary rates; proportion of professors who are full time and hold the highest degree in their fields; student-faculty ratio; academic quality of students (measured by the average ACT scores of incoming freshmen); the rate of acceptance of applicants; per-student spending; and alumni giving. These metrics contributed to identifying the comparison institutions. We've added to these indicators research/scholarship and graduate programs.

What do we need to do to become a Top 25 public research university?

By comparing ourselves to the universities on our benchmark list, we've set five priority areas:

In each of our priority areas, we are now developing action plans to improve key metrics – for example, increasing our retention and graduate rate; increasing the number of Ph.D.s we award; increasing research expenditures, etc.

As the diagram below indicates, there is overlap and synergy between each of our priority areas. Undergraduate education, graduate education, and research and scholarship are central to the mission of the university and are nested within the responsibility of faculty. To accomplish the mission of the university, the academic community needs appropriate infrastructure and resources including a dedicated staff and state-of-the-art facilities.

It will take all of us—administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni and supporters —working together, to achieve this goal.


Where are we in the implementation process?

Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek has appointed implementation teams (see end of FAQ for list of members) to develop action plans for each of these areas. The undergraduate team—which was the first to begin work—issued its draft plan in early 2011. Other teams will have draft action plans ready in the first half of 2011. At the June 2011 board meeting, Chancellor Cheek plans to provide a comprehensive overview of the plans with details about costs and needed resources.

It made sense to begin with the undergraduate plan. Thanks, in part, to the Legislature's passage of the Complete College Tennessee Act, some work was already being done and progress was already being made on some critical issues related to undergraduate education, including transfer students and changes in state formula that emphasize outcome (graduation rate).

How do the Top 25 quest and VOL Vision relate to each other?

VOL Vision 2015: The Road to the Top 25 is a strategically focused document that will help us ensure campus activities and efforts support the five priorities in our Top 25 quest.

How can we make these plans at a time when faculty and staff haven't received raises in years?

We're looking at efficiencies in the way we deliver education and operate the university that could free up money to provide both raises and investments in the Top 25. Also, as we improve, we demonstrate excellence and value which will help the state and others will see the benefits in investing in us.

How can we do this in such difficult economic times?

Tight budget times are the best times for planning; they force us to refocus on our mission. Then, as the economy strengthens and resources become more available, we have a prioritized plan about how to use new monies.

How much will this effort cost?

We don't know yet; part of the planning process is determining cost.

How are we going to pay for this?

Sources of funds are not being reviewed at this point, but other schools who have undertaken similar efforts have funded them through a variety of sources. In each plan, there is a focus on good stewardship of funds, including making the best use of current resources and accountability for any potential future funding.

Why be a Top 25 university?

The quest for the Top 25 challenges each of us to be better and make the university stronger. Additionally:

How can I help?


Is this going to increase my workload?

The idea is not to increase workload but to better distribute tasks so everyone does what they're best at doing. Through the planning process, looking at efficiencies and effectiveness, we'll hone in on the tasks that are most important to the university's mission.

How will the plan help us improve the graduation rate?


Does this affect students?

We are going to provide a better environment for students to better manage their responsibilities, which include:

Why is data a foundational priority?

It's needed to make informed decisions. Too often we make decisions based on anecdotal information or weak data.

Who are the people serving on these implementation teams?


Graduate Education

Infrastructure and Resources



Undergraduate Education


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The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System