The typical American occupation is descriptive in name; salesmen sell, servers serve, teachers teach. People rely on these indicative job titles as insights into the day-to-day lives of others.
But when someone has a less obvious line of work – say, chancellor of a major state university – he or she becomes an enigma, one that operates in the complex anonymity of public scrutiny.
It begs the question – what does Jimmy Cheek actually do?
On Nov. 23, Jimmy Cheek is not eating at a tailgate for the UT vs. Vanderbilt game. Surrounded by savory meatballs, stuffed chicken tenders, and a wet bar with 10 different wines and 12 different beers, Cheek holds only a plastic cup of water in his left hand, leaving his right hand free for shaking and his mouth free to chat. Unlike the tailgates outside in the cold, full of cornhole boards and contraband drinking, this gathering in the warm Tyson House has a purpose greater than the game – top administrators from UT have come to mingle with their counterparts from Oak Ridge National Lab. Cheek is too busy rubbing shoulders with the likes of Thom Mason, ORNL director, and A.C. Buchanan, III, a top ORNL chemical researcher, to enjoy the delicious spread before him.
"Late in the third quarter you'll see him sit down," says David Golden, the president of faculty senate.
Seamless and constant, the chancellor shifts from networking with UT-Battelle board members to small talk about their families. Part-politician and part-CEO, he never stands in one place longer than a few minutes. As kickoff draws near, Cheek and his wife, Ileen, head for the Chancellor-mobile – a UT golf cart. Russ Swafford, manager of special projects, drives them both to a skybox in Neyland Stadium where even more food and people wait.
Once inside, Cheek shakes hands with 14 different people within 10 minutes, despite a three minute break for the national anthem. Each handshake is followed by genuine conversation – Cheek calls students, administrators, alumni and trustees by name, thanks in part to the nametags offered upon entry to the skybox.
"He's very prepared," Swafford says, as Cheek moves on to chat with Rickey Hall, vice chancellor of diversity. "He always does his homework."
Cheek has demonstrated as much since taking the job on Feb. 1, 2009. As he approaches the five-year mark as Chancellor, UT continues to improve in many measurable categories. Incoming freshmen are smarter, buildings are newer and partnerships with multinational corporations are on the horizon. Even his controversial "15-in-4" tuition model has shown swift results; in fall 2013, freshmen averaged 15.1 hours, setting the class of 2017 on track to graduate in four years. And after discussions with SGA officials, tuition increases for current freshmen are expected to lock-in at 3 percent per year for the next four years.
Despite all the progress UT has made during his reign as Chancellor, however, the university has failed to climb into the list of U.S. News and World Report's Top 25 public universities. In 2013, UT actually dropped a spot, from 46th to 47th. In an address to the Faculty Senate on Sept. 12, Cheek explained that graduation and retention rates will be key to boosting the university's ranking and the post-graduation futures of UT students. He asked faculty to make strong personal efforts to help students negotiate their collegiate education; the logic goes that more help will expedite the graduation process.
And the Chancellor is a case study in expedition. He says he starts his day at 6:30 a.m., eating breakfast at home before commuting to Andy Holt Tower, where he is typically slated for meetings from 7:30 a.m. until the day's end. There's the weekly meetings with his cabinet; the biweekly meetings with Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Chris Cimino and Provost Susan Martin; the bimonthly meetings about faculty senate with Golden; the monthly meeting with UT President, Joe Dipietro.
Spread throughout all the meetings are more meetings, such as one on Sept. 14 with Lee Reidinger, director of the Bredesen Center, to discuss the progress of the interdisciplinary research and graduate program. Always doing his homework, Cheek peruses a report on the center before listening to Reidinger's plans for increased recruitment and funding. Mid-meeting, Cheek reminds himself to talk to someone in two weeks. Later, he recalls a month-old conversation with someone interested in the Bredesen Center, passing the name along to Reidinger.
When he's not meeting, he's eating. Almost every lunch is a lunch with someone else, and eating four dinners at home is a good week. Travel is a big part of the job, with a weekend trip to the Time Magazine Higher Education Summit in New York City, N.Y. in September and a 12-day trip to China in October. The constant public appearances demand a wide wardrobe – Cheek estimated that he had 15 different suits and sports coats, though he admitted that he couldn't be certain.
On Nov. 23, the most important man at UT has opted for a power-T sweater instead of another suit. Contrary to Golden's prediction, it's actually the second quarter when the Chancellor finally takes his seat in the skybox, quietly watching the Vols lose next to his wife and son. Because it's the season's last home game, there is less traffic around Cheek. Inert, he looks uncomfortably comfortable.
"He's 67 years old," his son Jeff says to me. "He could retire. But he loves the students. And Dad can't leave work at work."
A few moments later, Cheek receives word that UT senior Lindsay Lee has won the Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world's most prestigious scholarships. As he excitedly scurries across the skybox to celebrate with Provost Martin, Ileen leans over to me.
"That's his favorite part of the job," she says, nodding at Cheek's proud smile. "Students are much more interesting than professors or administrators."
Six things you might not know about Chancellor Cheek
• Cheek is an avid gardener who feuds with the neighborhood rabbit, according to his wife.
• He is originally from Hico, Texas, a town with a population of less than 1,400 people in the 2010 Census.
• He is a big John Denver fan.
• As a young high school teacher in Texas, Cheek encouraged troublesome students to learn about responsibility by working on a farm. The two students spent an entire Winter Break taking care of baby pigs.
• It is not uncommon to see Cheek drink tea with 3-4 packets of Splenda.
• Though you may not see him at TRECs, the Chancellor works out five days a week on his in-home elliptical. He also does push-ups each morning.