Donde Plowman

Chancellor-elect Donde Plowman speaks ahead of her July 1 start day on Monday, May 6. 

Chancellor Donde Plowman officially began her position on July 1, and said she planned to spend the first 60 days of her appointment listening to and learning about a campus she was once a department head at.

How has campus changed and how great is it to be back?

It is fantastic to be back. I'm overwhelmed by the physical changes to the campus- all these new buildings, new dormitories, this new building right here (Student Union). It was a dream when I left here. I mean I actually think they were starting to tear down parts of the old building. It's unbelievable. So it's just beautiful and, like, I want an office in this building, right? It's gorgeous.

Um, and the new dorms, the new academic spaces. And I love how green the campuses. It's really a beautiful campus. So that's one thing.

The other thing is I'm just delighted with how many of our programs just continue to grow in stature. I mean, we're known around the world for our nuclear engineering, for our supply chain management program, our printmaking program. We've got any number of programs that people around the world are attracted to. And so I'm excited about that. Excited to be leading this university.

What have your first eight days on the job been like?

I'm tired. They've been great. I have, I've really focused very much with this. First, I want to say really 60 days, I’m listening and learning as much as I can. So this is a great opportunity that I want people to know that I'm available. I've started, this past week, I started office hours that I'm doing every Tuesday afternoon from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Most of the time, I'll be over here in this building in a room somewhere and anyone can drop in and I just want to hear what people have to say, what they're thinking about and what their hopes are and what they're worried about, that kind of thing. I'm meeting, I’m doing lots of one-on-one meetings, so I have a lot to learn. I was here, but I was a faculty member and I was a department chair and in the College of Business, in the Haslam, it wasn't called the Haslam college stand, but now the Hassan College. And so just learning about the larger campus and hearing what people all want out of the new chancellor. So a lot of listening, lot of conversations both with people on campus and with external stakeholders.

You’ve held numerous positions in higher education. What will you take from those positions to apply to this position?

So I left here to go become the dean of the College of Business at Nebraska, the University of Nebraska. And I was in that job six and a half years. And from that I learned just how people, everybody wants to be part of something meaningful. Every faculty member, every staff member wants to feel like, and I think students feel the same way, I want to be part of something that matters.

And so one of the things I've felt I had good fortune with in Nebraska was we are able to get a strategic vision together and then move towards it and accomplish a lot of those things. We accomplished and we have established as an honors academy for business students. We started as strength center where every student learned their strengths. It's, it's just really fun to get everybody moving together on this towards the same goal.

So I look forward to doing that here. I don't know yet what that vision is going to look like. Part of listening is learning what people are thinking about.

I think I also learned, honestly, we had a lot of success in fundraising, so I learned a lot about how important it is for our alums and external parties to be players with us in what we're trying to do. So I look forward to getting to know as many of the people on the outside as well as the inside.

Diversity and inclusion has been a main topic on campus, as hateful messages, controversial speakers and decisions occurred over the past year. In what way(s), do you plan to address diversity and inclusion on campus?

I am glad you asked that question. I watched from afar some of the pain points that happened last year. They were on, unfortunately they've been happening on other campuses as well. Diversity is a very important value to me personally and has been professionally. I think we have to learn how this means kind of a resurgence of some racism around the country and we see it play out on college campuses. I think we have to learn how to call things out and talk about difficult topics.

So one of the things, I'm very eager, I got my (Mattering and Belonging) t-shirt from (Dean) Shea yesterday, which I look forward to wearing. I'm very eager to learn more about what they're going to be rolling out. I think I know that in Nebraska, faculty need help too on what do you do when there's something happening in your classroom that you've known doesn't feel right, but how do you have you step in?

And I think most of us want to be, most of us are welcoming. We just kind of need some instruction on how to do that better, how to learn how to have hard conversations. So I'm eager to talk to students about that and what the student government is thinking about that. I think we, I said this yesterday too, when I was meeting with (the Office of) Student Life, we have to always start with what our values are and what we are so important to me is that everyone feel welcome and that we do everything we can to be welcoming and help every student be successful. And if there, there's no place on this campus, there's no place in our world, I don't think for hateful, disrespectful behavior.

And so my goal is to create a culture where we can have differing opinions, but we talk about those things respectfully and there's no place for racism on a campus. So I'm really impressed with what they'd been doing and I look forward to seeing how that's going to play out. I look forward to getting with some groups on campus, student groups and talking through some of these issues.

Student programming has also seen its fair share of difficulties over the past year. In what ways to do you hope to work with students and other staff members to create a student programming funding system?

We have some constraints on us now that we didn't have before, right? So we've got to find a way to work within those constraints, but still make available programs for students where students have a hand in organizing and helping plan those. I think one of the things that's changed is where the money's going to reside. And so I'm working with the Vice Chancellor of Student Life (Vince Carilli) right now and we'll be working with the president on this. We've promised to go back to the board of trustees with a plan for how we're gonna do this next year.

So we want it to be a process where students are involved and that we're meeting the needs of students. At the same time, we're going to work within the constraints that we've been handed. Okay?

So I was very involved in as a student and undergraduate myself and helping plan and organize advance. I had no idea at the time where the money came from for it, but we want to see student input and, and, and maintain a way that students can have, can participate in that. So we don't quite have a plan together yet, but I'm working, Natalie and I have met, and I look forward to working with the student government leaders and, and our vice chancellor to move something forward. It's not going to be what we had last year. I’m hoping it'll be something that we can all look at and say, okay, I can still see that the things that I'm interested in are available.

With the potential for alcohol sales to be permitted during sporting events, what do you forsee this looking like for the fall semester?

As you know, we haven't decided finally to serve alcohol at athletic events or concerts, but the legislation’s made it possible. So for me, before we make that final decision, I want to see, and so I've got a task force put together. We just established it. I think they're meeting today for the first time to take a look at putting together an entire, how would that look? How would we, how would it be distributed? How will we make sure that people are safe? How would we communicate what it's about? Um, looking at best practices. So I'm eager to see a plan and then we'll go from there.

How do you plan to be transparent and visible for students, faculty and staff to reach you?

So, you know, I was talking to your new student body president about this and I will, we were playing around with ideas like how are we going to, I see her and her team as representing you the best sound, the only way to seek student input. But that's an important one. So she and I are talking about what, what would be the right set of meetings. I would like to meet with them regularly and hear from them. So as your representatives, that's one way, I think I'm looking for suggestions about that. I'm meeting with some student groups as I get invited, although, you know, I don't have more than 24 hours in the day. I want to continue to, I will make myself available. I'll be eating in the dining halls, I'll be over and around. Holding office hours is another way that I want to do that. So I'll be looking for suggestions about that too.

One of the things I'm thinking about is my office is way far away so that I've got to figure out how to make myself more accessible to everybody, students and faculty. So I've started with this idea of office hours. That's not a great long-term solution, but it's a beginning so that people say, well, there's a chance where she's in there, she's actually doing stuff and, and we see her, we know who she is. So I'm open to any suggestions you might have about that. So just doing this interview is helpful to me anyway. It's a long walk, isn’t it?

You’ve only had eight days on the job, but what is your vision or goal for your time as chancellor at UT?

So what I, what I have heard so far in eight days from people is they want the chancellor to be visible and accessible. They want to focus on the good things happening and I think so many, so much great stuff has happened in the last year. Yes, there have been flashpoints that were upsetting, but people want to focus on the good news. This is a great university and the experiences students can have if they choose when they come here to volunteer, to be part of the newspaper, to, to make a difference. That's a huge differentiator for this campus. And I have this goal in my mind that when I just told the new freshmen this, I hope it's true that when, when they graduate in four years, in four years, or three and a half like you did, that no matter where they go, somebody says to them, oh, you're a Volunteer? What was your Volunteer experience where you made a difference? Tell me about that. I would like the world to know that that's what it means to be volunteers.

So for example, coming back after nine years, being in Nebraska, most people in Nebraska don't really know why we're called the Volunteers. And I think that's real opportunity to really take that, that brand and because it's really meaningful and powerful. I think the world needs people, young people who graduate from college and are willing to step forward and say, you know what, I'll try to help go, I'll try to help that. I'll step forward and you know, show some kindness when nobody else willing to step forward and volunteer to help with that. Or I'll have an idea or I'll raise it, raise a question. And that's what I hope.

That might sound kind of simple, but I think there's a great power in who we are as Volunteers. So I hope that when you're traveling in Europe in a year or whatever, somebody says to you, you’re from Tennessee? What did you do that made a difference in the world? You're going to have plenty of things to say, but I want everyone to.

What do you want people to know about you that they may not know about you?

Oh, gosh. Actually there's so much that nobody knows about me cause I'm kinda new.

I love to play the piano. I don't get very much time to do that. But the reason I played the piano is not for, oh, I want to see if I can master this piece, but I like to play the piano because it's kind of like therapy. It makes me feel good and I especially love to play hymns. So, you know, sort of special renditions of hymns.

One of the piano faculty members came to my office hours and he brought me two CDs and one was he said, I know your dad was a minister and it was a CD of piano of somebody playing hymns. And I looked at it, I go, I know that arranger, I have his book so people might not know about that. I like to sit around by hymns. I don't sing along with it but I play.

Watch the video interview on YouTube here.

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