To Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, students are not the university's customers– they are its "products." And he is committed to making sure UT produces an "extremely high quality" product.
Before every student senate meeting, the Student Government Association allows for a "town hall," permitting any student to present an idea or concern. But, on Wednesday night, Chancellor Cheek appeared for SGA's town hall in the Haslam Business Building, a gesture he typically extends once a semester. Kicking off SGA's annual "Orange ad White Week," an event series leading up to the Orange and White game, Cheek discussed UT's growth over the last year and answered questions from students present.
As the 2013/2014 academic year draws to a close, Cheek cited significant progress among the Volvision's criteria for lifting UT into the ranks of America's "Top 25" public research universities. Of the twelve metrics identified, UT has demonstrated progress toward ten of those goals, with only one area showing no improvement. The freshman to sophomore retention rate, Cheek said, is "stuck" at 86 percent, just beneath the Volvision's 90 percent goal. However, one criterion has been met– UT already attracts students with standardized scores equivalent to those of Top 25 students.
"You are in the Top 25 as far as your academic profile is concerned," Cheek said to the small audience.
Despite the eleven residual goals, Cheek remained optimistic about UT's continued efforts, reminding students that "the journey is more important than the destination." Following his opening address, Cheek took questions from the student audience.
Q: Our state funding has been rapidly decreasing over the past few years. Why and what does this mean for the state's flagship university?
A: The reason why is that the state revenue is insufficient to support all the things the state needs to do...And if you've watched Tenncare, it's moved from about 12 percent of the budget to about 25 percent of the budget. That has caused higher education to be less competitive to get resources from the state. The governor is completely committed to higher education...but the governor's had to pull back all the new resources he was going to allocate to higher education except for some construction projects...so what that means is more of the cost of higher education is shifted toward students.
Q: What is the value of investing in infrastructure as opposed to expanding our faculty or purchasing educational materials?
A: We have some places on our campus that if we took you to you'd say it almost looks like a third world country...If you're going to have state of the art education, if your going to have state of the art professors, we've got to have state of the art facilities.
Q: Can you speak to the financial solvency of athletic department compared to other schools in the SEC?
A: Our athletic department is an auxiliary so it has to stand on its own...
We've had a lot of turnover in coaches and it's cost the athletic department a lot of money. They are financially solvent. They are not in a deficit situation. We will also have additional revenue coming in a year and a half from the SEC contract and that will help them immensely...We also think that as we enter this next year, athletic revenue will increase. But it's a very tight budget situation right now.
Q: Do you support same-sex partner benefits for university employees?
A: Makes no difference whether I support that or not. The question is, will the state support it? We're in a situation where I see no path forward to move that agenda forward under the current confines that we work in. I do think there some court cases that are pending that will have a major impact on that.
Other highlights included Cheek's statement of support for the student's right to invite speakers and distribute student fees, as well as the Greek community. The divestment campaign, however, did not receive Cheek's support. Cheek also rejected the premise of the Living Wage Campaign's crusade for minimum $12.50 hourly wages, saying that the living wage calculation does not accurately represent the needs of a single Knoxville resident.