2018 Revue: For UT, a Season of Turnovers

UT President Joe DiPietro

2018 Revue: For UT, a Season of Turnovers

The state university system ends a roiled year with interim leadership and a brand-new Board of Trustees.

by jesse fox mayshark • december 28, 2018


former ut president joe dipietro at his final meeting of the board of trustees, nov. 8, 2018. (Photo courtesy of the university of tennessee)

This story is part of a series looking back at 2018. See also:

How things change.

Amid the turmoil, a concern for diversity gains ground.

A year ago, Joe DiPietro was still president of the University of Tennessee, and Beverly Davenport was still chancellor of the Knoxville campus. Phil Fulmer was less than a month into his job as UT’s new athletic director (following the firing of John Currie), and Jeremy Pruitt had been announced as the Vols’ new football coach (following the firing of Butch Jones) but was still wearing crimson while he helped his erstwhile employers at the University of Alabama to another national title.

Oh, and the UT Board of Trustees had an entirely different list of names than it does now. Basically, it wasn’t just the football team that had what they call a “rebuilding year.” The transitional period will continue at least through 2019, though many on campus and off no doubt hope for less drama than in the past 12 months.

Davenport Out

The year began with UT still absorbing the aftershocks of the Jones-Currie firings and the attendant media frenzy (which Deadspin called “the most tortured football coaching search imaginable”). The tumult had barely subsided when DiPietro announced the dismissal of Davenport on May 2 with a letter that violated the polite norms of academic life, in which among other things he faulted her for “a lack of trust, collaboration, communication and transparency.”

The abrupt termination of a chancellor who had led the flagship campus for just over a year brought more national attention of the kind universities try to avoid. The Washington Post characterized DiPietro’s missive as “unusually blunt,” and the Chronicle of Higher Education speculated that it was “political payback” for Davenport’s resistance to Gov. Bill Haslam’s outsourcing program and her support of a new, privately-funded gay pride center on campus.

Davenport had her detractors on campus, who found her communication and management style chaotic, but she also had plenty of supporters among faculty and students who felt that the first woman chancellor in UT Knoxville’s history had been poorly treated.

In the end, Davenport reached a settlement with the university and left campus with a $1.33 million settlement, prompting comparison to the buyouts of athletic coaches’ contracts for which UT has become notorious in the past decade. Wayne Davis, who had just retired as dean of UTK’s College of Engineering, was tapped as interim chancellor.


Meanwhile, moves by DiPietro and Haslam were raising alarms among faculty about academic freedom and representation. The Board of Trustees in March approved a plan for “enhanced post-tenure review” put forward by DiPietro, who said that regular performance reviews of all faculty would “enhance academic excellence, accountability and transparency at the University of Tennessee.” Faculty members took it as, at best, an unneeded extra layer of reporting, and at worst a potential threat to their freedom to research and teach.

At the same time, the state Legislature was moving forward with Haslam’s proposed UT FOCUS Act, which shrank the size of the UT Board of Trustees and removed a voting faculty member from its roster. Legislators threw Haslam a curveball, though, when after approving the bill they rejected four of his initial appointees -- including those who were current members of the board. The result was a new, smaller Board of Trustees made up entirely of people who had never served on it before, most of them business leaders with no academic experience.

It’s a Boyd, It’s a Plan

The new board nevertheless went straight to work, and when DiPietro in September announced his long-anticipated retirement, board Chairman John Compton promptly announced a proposed interim replacement: Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, who had just completed an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for Tennessee governor.

Boyd is a friend of the Haslam family who had served in Gov. Haslam’s administration, and Compton was once briefly CEO of Pilot Flying J, the Haslam family business, so the nomination raised some eyebrows about the family’s continued influence over all things UT. (Appearances weren’t helped by widespread speculation about the involvement of Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam in the contentious football coaching search -- rumors that Jimmy Haslam denied.)

But Boyd’s appointment as interim president sailed through a hastily called meeting of the Board of Trustees, despite objections from some students and faculty about the Radio Systems founder’s lack of an academic background and the rhetoric about immigration deployed in his gubernatorial bid. Boyd vowed a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and identified six key areas he will focus on during the next two years.

He started on those almost immediately on taking office the week after Thanksgiving, promptly naming a search committee for a permanent UT Knoxville chancellor, launching an online “transparency” portal, and creating a task force on “administrative effectiveness.” He has also promised a national search for a permanent UT System president in 2020. (For the moment, at least, Boyd says he is not interested in the permanent post himself.)

Diversity and the Rock

Issues of diversity remain top of the agenda for many UTK faculty and students, two years after the Legislature defunded the campus’ Office for Diversity and Inclusion because of anger about online posts the office made about gender pronouns and holiday celebrations. That defunding led to the departure of Rickey Hall, the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, and the elimination of his position. It also led to the shuttering of the campus LGBT Pride Center, although it was subsequently reopened with private funds.

In September, on the heels of UT’s demotion in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of public universities (a drop attributed to a change in methodology), the university placed high on a less flattering list: Princeton Review named it the third-worst campus in America for LGBT students. Subsequent months saw repeated instances of anti-semitic and white supremacist graffiti on the campus Rock, where students and others are free to paint any messages they choose.

All of it prompted the Faculty Senate to call for the reinstatement of a chief diversity officer for the campus. Interim Chancellor Davis responded earlier this month with the naming of administrator Tyvi Small as interim vice chancellor for diversity and engagement. He will assume his campus-wide duties on Jan. 2, 2019.