Donde Plowman got her first taste of leadership in her college dormitory.
As a resident assistant in McElvaney Hall at Southern Methodist University, Plowman received early lessons in managing relationships and mediating conflicts.
“I probably wouldn’t be a university chancellor if I hadn’t started as a resident advisor in a dorm, because that was the first opportunity I had to influence a group of people and help them find their way,” Plowman said. “It’s how I learned to conduct a meeting and solve a problem.”
Plowman, a business professor and the daughter of a Methodist minister, became the ninth chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, on July 1, 2019. Her appointment was approved unanimously by the UT Board of Trustees in May.
This is her second tenure at UT. From 2007 to 2010 she served in the Haslam College of Business, first as a management professor and then as a department head.
“I’ve spent my entire career in public higher education,” Plowman said. “I love that commitment to education for everyone, because education levels the playing field for people in life. The land grant mission in particular appeals to me.”
She left Tennessee to become dean of the College of Business at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she raised $150 million, opened a new 240,000-square-foot building, and increased enrollment by 26 percent in her six years in the job. She became executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer—Nebraska’s equivalent to a provost—in 2017.
At each stop, she encountered new challenges that have stretched her leadership skills and prepared her for this moment, she said.
She gained the experience and developed the confidence to make the many small decisions that keep things running as a department head—which she calls “the hardest, most thankless job.” She also learned the value of developing distinctive programs that attract both donors and students.
She took those lessons to Nebraska, where she started an honors academy and established the Clifton Strengths Institute, which helped high-achieving students discover their strengths and become leaders.
“I learned that high-quality programs, beyond just the high-quality classroom experiences, are really important,” she said.
At Nebraska Plowman learned that people are attracted to big ideas and bold aspirations, as long as they’re thoughtful.
“People would say to me, ‘Wow, I really love your energy,’” she said. “And I had never really thought about it before. It became my mantra. My energy is a resource I can bring every day, and it’s valuable and it doesn’t cost anything.
“When a leader brings a lot of positive energy, it just multiplies. And I’m bringing that back with me to Tennessee.”
Plowman’s early life was spent on the move every four years as her father, a minister, rotated through assignments from the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference.
When asked, Plowman points to her father as her single greatest influence. He was a World War II veteran who had been stationed in England before he met his wife, Trudy, and answered a call to the ministry. He would later run for US Congress.
“He was a leader in his world, and he was a preacher so he could speak eloquently, and he could speak truth to power in a way that was really acceptable,” she said. “My dad was like that—he was very forthright, but in a way that always communicates how much you care about the person. When you deliver feedback that might be hard to hear, you deliver it a way that the person walks away thinking, ‘Wow, thank you.’
“He was really good at that.”
It’s a skill Plowman says she’s working to emulate, and she hopes she can help foster that same candor across the university.
To be a Volunteer, she said, is to have the willingness to serve and the courage to act.
“I want every UT student to develop the confidence to step forward, show an act of kindness or an act of courage, and to make a difference,” she said. “That’s something I think is hugely important in our society and in our country right now, and it’s what Tennessee graduates should be known for.”