The next decade at UT: Accessibility and research are top priorities, Randy Boyd says

Monica Kast

For Randy Boyd, the start of a new decade means looking toward the next 10 years at the University of Tennessee. 

The interim system president outlined three things he wants the university to focus on in his State of the University address on Friday: making the university accessible, focusing on science and research and serving the state of Tennessee. 

"We are going to make this the greatest decade in the history of the University of Tennessee," Boyd told Knox News on Thursday. "After 225 years of its history, that's a pretty bold statement. We don't mean any disrespect to those who came before us. In fact, we owe it to them; they expect us to build on the foundation they've provided."

Making the university accessible is part of "living up to our land grant university status," Boyd said, and something UT Promise aims to do.

Boyd launches UT Promise mentor program

UT Promise, a scholarship program that covers tuition and fees for students who qualify, was announced at Boyd's State of UT address last year. The program starts this fall and will cover tuition and fees for students with a household income of less than $50,000 a year. UT Promise will make sure "that finances are not a barrier," Boyd said. 

About 7,100 people applied for UT Promise, which exceeded the original goal of 2,000 applications, Boyd said. While the application is now closed for everyone except transfer students and nontraditional students, the push is now to recruit mentors for UT Promise students. 

A sign is set out as University of Tennessee Interim President Randy Boyd speaks at the annual State of the University address on Friday.

"This is an added resource that will provide them with the advice and support they need, and help them get engaged at the university," Boyd said. 

Every UT Promise student will be paired with a mentor for two years. Mentors will be paired with two to five students and spend one hour a month with them. If someone is interested in becoming a mentor, more information is available on UT's website. Boyd and UT-Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman have both signed up to be mentors.

“I am excited to serve as a UT Promise mentor because I believe this is one of the greatest aspects of the UT Promise scholarship,” Boyd said. “Having the experience to interact with professors, chancellors, community leaders, alumni and more is invaluable to our students in preparing them for their lives during their college years and beyond.”

Investing in science and research

Another goal for the decade is to be a leader in science and research. The Oak Ridge Institute, which was approved by the board of trustees in June and is expected to launch later this year, will bring new faculty and students to UT. 

More:UT's planned Oak Ridge Institute is designed to 'answer some really hard questions'

Gov. Bill Lee has proposed $10 million to go toward the Oak Ridge Institute, which would help fund the first year, Boyd said. 

"That will allow us to launch this transformative new initiative," Boyd said. "We think it's the biggest science project since the Manhattan Project in the state of Tennessee."

When fully launched, the Oak Ridge Institute is expected to add about 120 faculty members and 500 graduate students to UT. Areas of research will include artificial intelligence and data sciences. Lee's investment "gives us the confidence to go ahead and start recruiting leadership" for the institute, Boyd said. 

University of Tennessee Interim President Randy Boyd speaks at the annual State of the University.

Another focus for the university will be serving the state of Tennessee. 

"We want to make sure the state knows that we are here to serve them," Boyd said. "The state isn't here to serve the university; we are here to serve them."

Through programs like extension offices, Boyd said Tennessee is able to develop policies and programs that can easily be spread across the state. 

"We can be an active partner with the state in solving the grand challenges across the state," Boyd said. 

Boyd reflects on the last year

Boyd also touted the accomplishments of UT over the last year, including a record enrollment of 51,582 students and a record number of degrees given. Total enrollment grew about 1.5% last year.

"I think the UT brand is getting stronger," Boyd said. "People are seeing all the great things the university is doing and it's attracting students."

While Boyd said he couldn't be sure how UT Promise might affect enrollment next year, "it should be a great year," he said. 

Boyd also talked about implementing more mental health services across all campuses. After a mental health summit in November, Boyd said all campuses are working to do more to help students with any mental health issues that may arise. 

Moving forward this year, more services and ideas will be implemented to help students' mental health.