The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Vol Vision: Pursuit of the Top 25

Frequently Asked Questions

Posted June 27, 2011

Planning Background

What is the relationship between Top 25 and Vol Vision?

Top 25 is a component of Vol Vision, the university's strategic plan, and related efforts aimed to advance UT Knoxville toward peers on nationally tracked measures.

Vol Vision 2015: Pursuit of the Top 25 provides the guiding framework for UT Knoxville to achieve its potential as the leading public institution of higher learning in the state of Tennessee. Its mission, vision, values, and strategic priorities set the foundation for a common vision.

Where does diversity fit in? How does this contribute to Top 25?

Diversity is not explicitly stated as a Top 25 metric, but it is an organizational value stressed in Vol Vision. Our commitment to diversity is woven throughout action plans, including graduate student recruitment and faculty and staff hiring. We have shown progress in this area. For example, in 2011, 20 percent of faculty hires were diversity hires.

Have faculty and students been involved and supportive in Top 25 activities? How about the deans?

Five teams were appointed to develop implementation plans for the areas of undergraduate education, graduate education, research, faculty, and infrastructure and resources. Each team was led by a UT Knoxville executive-level administrator and had representation from UT Knoxville faculty and staff. The teams developed a communications strategy that engaged stakeholders across the campus, including deans, associate deans, faculty, students, and staff.

One Year of Progress

What have you done so far to help with the Top 25 goal?

The following are some of the major strategic actions we've taken over the past year. In most cases, the results will not show in the metrics until a few years down the road, but we're laying the groundwork for that improvement now.

Current Position - Top 25 Metrics

Undergraduate Education

Why has retention gone up two points? Is this rate of improvement sustainable?

UT Knoxville has shown steady improvement in first- to second-year retention over the past five years. This improvement can be attributed to a variety of factors, including UT Knoxville initiatives to help high-risk students succeed and improve the first-year experience. The following are examples of such initiatives:

Although we have improved, we still have a long way to go. We are still losing approximately 14 percent of students after the first year, which is more than we lose in the second and third years combined. In addition, UT Knoxville has seen a large increase in student quality, and retention outcomes for these high-quality students are mixed; our highest-quality incoming students are retained at only the average rate of Top 25 peers.

If we are going to continue to improve, we need to encourage our students to graduate in four years by providing enough course sections and improving academic advising, among other actions. In addition, we need to continue our focus on the first year, identify new ways to serve our better students better, and expand our efforts aimed at retaining second- and third-year students.

Graduate Education

Why has the number of graduate degrees awarded gone down? When can we expect to see progress here?

Over the past ten years, the number of graduate degrees awarded has been relatively flat, and the 2009 to 2010 decrease of approximately 3 percent overall is consistent with other annual fluctuations.

This will be one of the most difficult metrics to make progress. There is a long lag time in results (UT Knoxville PhD students require approximately seven and a half years to complete their degrees), and we will need to invest significant resources in the near term to increase enrollment, including faculty time and new dollars for stipends and fellowships.

Why have graduate degrees awarded been flat over the last ten years? What is standing in the way of your increasing the number of graduate degrees awarded?

We need to step up our recruiting efforts to really make progress, and this can be expensive; the dollar amount and the number of our stipends and fellowships is lower than our peers. We need to close these gaps to be competitive in attracting graduate students of a caliber equivalent to that of our undergraduates, where our student quality is very high.

We've had some recent success here, in particular with the UT Knoxville-Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education (CIRE) program, which has a first-year class of seventeen new, high-quality graduate students.


What accounts for recent success in research expenditures?

UT Knoxville's increase from 2008 to 2009 results in part from recent proposal success, including winning several large federal grants from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health.

Additionally, UT Knoxville has leveraged interdisciplinary strengths and partnerships to establish new research centers and institutes, including the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBIOS) and joint projects between UT Knoxville and ORNL.

We've had a big increase in research expenditures this year; is this growth sustainable?

There are some strong indicators for future success:

Are these metrics a realistic scorecard? Are we going to close the gap in research expenditures or graduate degrees awarded in the next decade?

We can make short-term gains in our faculty productivity; UT Knoxville is close to the research peer average in federal research expenditures per tenure-line faculty. We will need more faculty and space to make real progress toward closing these gaps. Research peer schools have, on average, 40 percent more faculty than UT Knoxville.


Why has faculty salary gone up when there have been no raises over the past four years? Are salaries at Top 25 peer schools going up as well?

The one-year increase in UT Knoxville faculty salaries is primarily due to the hiring of Governor's Chairs, the hiring of new assistant professors, and promotional raises.

UT Knoxville faculty and staff have not received raises in the past four years. We have still seen a small increase in professor-rank salaries overall (approximately 3 percent), due primarily to the reasons listed above. Top 25 peers, however, have seen significant increases in salary. As an example, the median assistant professor salary for Top 25 target peers has increased by 8 percent over the past four years.

How do we compare on salary at all professor-rank levels? How do we compare on non-professor-rank salaries?

Our assistant professor salary is a critical benchmark, because this reflects our ability to recruit and develop new talent, and UT Knoxville is second from the bottom of Top 25 peers on this measure. We are also far below Top 25 peers at the other professor ranks; we are fourth from the bottom on full professor- and associate professor-level salaries.

National benchmark data focuses on base salaries at professor-rank salaries. We are completing a compensation study that will include a fuller range of compensation data points and include non-professor-rank and staff salaries.

Are you moving to decrease the ratio of students to faculty to the level of Top 25 peers, and what would this cost?

To close the gap in the ratio of students to faculty, we will need to hire additional faculty. During the past year, we've identified a need to invest in instruction to clear bottlenecks in the courses students need to graduate, specifically to add more course sections to increase capacity in these bottleneck courses. This investment will be substantial and include new faculty, lecturers, and graduate teaching assistants. Investments in new faculty will help us close the gap on the student-to-faculty ratio. In addition to undergraduate considerations, investments in new faculty will need to align with our research and graduate education priorities.

Comparison to Top 25 Peers

The peers are likely moving as well. How do we compare this year? Who is included in this group?

We've updated the Top 25 gap analysis this year and will continue to do so going forward. Since we presented the original gap analysis in June 2010, UT Knoxville gaps to Top 25 target peers have decreased for four metrics, increased for four metrics, shown no change for two metrics, and shown mixed results for one metric.

We're making good progress in undergraduate education and research, but graduate education is a clear area for improvement: We are down year-to-year on overall graduate degrees awarded, and peers have gone up on this measure.

We've also found that improvement in graduate education can impact improvement in undergraduate metrics. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled UT Knoxville's success in getting more students in the classroom and off the waiting list by expanding the ranks of graduate student instructors. This approach gives undergraduates access to instructors who are closely connected with the culture of the institution. It also gives graduate students much-needed teaching experience and puts a person in front of the classroom whose professional development in which the university is involved.

Gaps are still large for infrastructure and resources metrics, both for teaching and support expenditures per student and endowment per student.

The faculty salary gap has decreased at the professor rank, due in large part to the hiring of Governor's Chairs, and there is no change in the gap at the assistant professor rank.

Resources Required

What about deficits in current space and future space needs for growth?

We have an approximately 873,000-gross-square-footage deficit in academic and research space, as defined by THEC space standards, which are based on our current level of outcomes such as research expenditures.

This current deficit does not account for future growth needed to meet the level of Top 25 peers. We know that we will need more space to close the gaps to peers in research. If we are going to meet the level of Top 25 peers, we will need to grow total research expenditures by approximately 10 percent per year over ten years, and to conduct this research, we will need significantly more space.

How much is this going to cost, and how long will it take?

We told you last year that we are embarking on a decade-long journey, and the process of implementation planning has helped us to identify a variety of both the short- and long-term strategies to help us along the way.

Through this process, we have identified large gaps in areas such as salaries and space. These are the investments we need to make now to position us for future growth.

How will you move forward with addressing space needs-new space and renovated space?

We are working on this through the master plan process and will work to do what is economically rational.

If we give you the money to meet all of these commitments right now, can you be Top 25?

New resources are critical to achieving our goals, but this is only a part of the picture; the Top 25 journey requires leadership, support, and buy-in from the Board of Trustees, UT leaders, students, students' families, faculty, staff, the state of Tennessee, donors, and partners.

Where are these commitments going to come from, and who is going to make them?

While the mix of funding sources to support a progression toward Top 25 depends on many factors, the experience of other universities suggests that key elements include continuing efficiency and effectiveness improvements, state flexibility, and capital and annual fund-raising.


What have you learned from implementing the Undergraduate Education Plan that will help you in implementing the plans in the areas of graduate education, research, faculty, and infrastructure and resources?

Experience in initial implementation of the undergraduate plan actions has taught us that we can begin to make progress with no or limited new resources. Many of the early action steps have been taken promptly and with a relatively small investment of new resources. For example, we have:

What have you learned from similar efforts at other universities?

Universities that have made significant progress on similar efforts have sustained high-intensity improvement efforts over many years with corresponding financial investments. We are already making progress on our own, with limited or no new resources.

Beyond financial commitments, success also depends significantly on continuing investments of time, attention, and energy on the part of the university. We now have a project leader for the Top 25 plan-Associate Vice Chancellor Mary Albrecht-and five implementation teams that will provide oversight, feedback and executive accountability, and progress reporting for implementation.

How long will this take?

This is, at least, a decade-long commitment. Our most urgent needs are in the areas undergraduate education, faculty, and staff; our faculty and staff have received no raises in the past four years, and we are still losing 14 percent of our students after their first year. At the same time, we need to begin making additional resource commitments in areas of research, graduate education, and infrastructure and resources if we are going to make progress toward Top 25 goals.

Additional Questions

What is your biggest obstacle to making faster progress?

We need buy-in and support from external stakeholders to make progress on our major resource needs, including raising money for endowed chairs, professorships, and fellowships, raising faculty and staff salaries, completing capital projects, and developing new partnerships with industry to support research aligned with economic development.

You have a new president of the UT system. What can the new president do to help you achieve your goals? What can the Board do?

We're having conversations about this right now in key areas where the campus and system must have strong partnerships, including those related to increasing efficiency and effectiveness, and we will continue these conversations going forward. In addition, the system has recently commissioned a study of their strategy.

The president has announced a strategic planning initiative for the UT system. How will that effort mesh with your Top 25 activities? What are the potential benefits, and what are your concerns?

We need to help the UT system with their strategic planning initiative, and our strategic planning progress must be appropriately integrated into the system-wide process.

Our planning teams surfaced many areas where we need to partner with the system to achieve our goals in all five of our focus areas, and the system strategic planning initiative is an opportunity to discuss how to advance this partnership.

What do you expect to be your biggest accomplishments to be in the coming year?

We've made progress on our undergraduate education metrics-in particular, first- to second-year retention-and there are indicators that we will have success on six-year graduation rates, as well. In addition, the hiring of Governor's Chairs has allowed us to make great strides in research and graduate education, and we will continue to see this success here in years to come. Graduate education metrics will take longer to make progress; therefore, we need to evaluate opportunities to invest in this area in the near term if we want to see progress in the future.


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