University of Tennessee expects big rankings boost by uniting Knoxville campus, ag school

Monica Kast
  • While people generally support bringing UTK and UTIA together, faculty members say they felt shut out of the process.
  • Uniting the two institutions would increase the national rankings.
  • UT System interim President Randy Boyd apologized for the process at last Friday's board meeting.

Uniting the leadership of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the UT Institute of Agriculture would dramatically increase the school's national ranking and help recruit more students and faculty.

The new structure will be similar to that at other universities, and brings more opportunities for collaboration and recruitment, as well as the added benefit of higher national rankings.

UT-Knoxville currently ranks 72nd and UTIA ranks 123rd in the National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development rankings. If it were one institution, it would be ranked 55th.

Although the plan was approved at the June board of trustees meeting, the two institutions and other stakeholders have been discussing since then how to implement it.

Though the plan has widespread support across the university community, UTIA faculty members said at Friday's board of trustees meeting they wish they would have had a bigger role in the decision-making. UT System interim President Randy Boyd acknowledged their concerns.

Randy Boyd

“I want to make sure I say very clearly, I apologize for that process,” Boyd said. “That was solely on me. It was my fault for not listening to enough people. Here, going forward, it will be something that we definitely work harder to do.”

The university has emphasized that it will not reduce funding or resources from UTIA. Instead, it will unite the leadership of the two institutions, which are already accredited as a single institution.

Andrea Ludwig, an associate professor of ecological engineering, was one of two UTIA professors on the 14-person unification committee. Ludwig addressed the board before Boyd did.

“The process used in unification and to create the Oak Ridge Institute was absolutely counter to joint planning and the concept of shared governance,” Ludwig said during the meeting. “It was secretive and overlooked the most valuable assets the university has to offer: its people.”

UT-Knoxville currently ranks 72nd and the UT Institute of Agriculture ranks 123rd in the National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development rankings. If it were one institution, it would be ranked 55th.

Ludwig said in her view, the lack of inclusion has directly damaged morale at UTIA.

“Morale is at an all-time low, in my frame of reference,” she said. “Not due to a lack of funding, not due to a heavy workload, but instead because of the feeling of not being included in this process, one that impacts our ability to serve our land grant mission.”

A survey given to stakeholders backed up Ludwig's views: "There was also a widely shared opinion that the manner in which the unification was carried out damaged the trust between administration and all stakeholder groups. Internal stakeholder groups (faculty, staff and students) were especially concerned that they were not included during information gathering about the decision prior to it being executed," according to a report on the unification. 

Nonetheless, over 50% of survey respondents agreed that unification will enhance collaboration, enhance UT's national reputation and will be positive overall. 

Boyd said he’s “really excited about where we’re at” with plans for bringing the two groups together. UT-Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman and Tim Cross, head of UTIA, have come up with plans that can already begin, Boyd said.