At 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, Chancellor Donde Plowman held her third annual Flagship Address in the Student Union Auditorium. She spoke on her five goals for the University of Tennessee: cultivating the Volunteer experience, conducting research that makes life and lives better, ensuring a culture where Vol is a verb, making ourselves nimble and adaptable, and embodying the spirit of a modern land-grant, research university.
Plowman started with the importance of making a difference both on campus and once a student has graduated. She explained why the pledge of “Passing the Torch” is one that is taken the first and last year of college because it is something that she believes should be thought of throughout life.
Plowman told those in the audience that this year’s class is the largest the university has ever had and that the main strength for the generation was “restorative,” meaning the class is known to enjoy problem solving and wants to be a part of making a difference.
“It is not just what we do that makes the University of Tennessee great, it is how we do it,” Plowman said.
Plowman said that students are able to work in real-life situations and internships and partner with organizations like Volkswagen to be a part of incredibly large projects.
“The University of Tennessee is the destination for advanced manufacturing and materials. We have 150 faculty whose research and expertise have touched this field,” Plowman said. “We have unmatched resources, facilities and capabilities.”
Plowman laid out the multiple ways students have come together to make other Vols’ lives significantly easier and how reaching out is the real responsibility of being a Volunteer. She mentioned students who have moved their class location just to help one Volunteer or who have come together to research the stress of a bridge and how to improve it with modern technology.
“This is an example of a modern, land-grant university, to connect with every Tennessean, and communities around the world, inspiring future Volunteers to join us,” Plowman said. “This goal is central to our mission, and it’s central to who we are.”
Plowman also mentions the hardships of COVID-19 and her vision postponing throughout the pandemic. There were a lot of learning curves, and she said it was no cake walk.
“We have to be honest with ourselves with what is holding us back,” Plowman said. “When we have a sprawling, state-wide campus of more than 30,000 students, 9,000 faculty and staff, made up of hundreds of academic departments and administrative units, it is hard to be nimble.”
“As we have seen over the last two years, there are times when we must be flexible. Sometimes we must change course mid-stride.”
But Plowman argued that UT has been able to come back on top. In just a year, Plowman said 73 million dollars in undergraduate scholarships have been awarded, the state has been ranked sixth in top-10 public academic programs, and there have been over 260,000 alumni helping and reaching out to the University after graduation.
“It has been a hard 18 months, but as we sit in this room together today, we have a clearer sense of who we are and what we’re capable of,” Plowman said. “Through it all, we never stopped looking for the moments of joy.”
Plowman plans to present her vision and goals next month to the Board of Trustees for approval and hopes to move forward with every detail.
A celebration was followed shortly after the address concluded. However, a protest was awaiting the Chancellor outside the auditorium. Led by Allison Becha, an organizer for United Campus Workers, a rally of faculty and staff demanded for the Chancellor to take further action for COVID-19 safety.
“Over 850 workers signed a petition asking for extending the mask mandates, free testing and masks, better signage, remote work and hazard pay,” Becha said. “The temporary mask mandate is a start, but we really need stronger protections with all the other demands.”
Becha said custodians are working seven days a week to clean the stadium and work 12 hours on a Saturday game day, leading them to extra exposure with a full-capacity stadium.
“Workers should not be in these conditions when we have National Guard at hospitals,” Becha said. “We are at the highest COVID(-19) count than we have been the whole pandemic.”
“Last Thursday’s game, there were people fainting, getting heat stroke and throwing up in the stadium, and the Chancellor needs to give people hazard pay.”
With the conditions a football game brings, Becha says the wages for all workers should be raised from $13 to $15.
“It has been at $13, but that was by dorm custodians speaking out about it last year,” Becha said. “People have been speaking out about COVID(-19) the entire year.”
Becha reiterated that the only way she has seen change in conditions of COVID-19’s policies on campus has been through protest.
“The plan was to march the petition with 850 signatures to the Chancellor’s office, and present it to her,” Becha said. “We’ve been at it since 10:30 this morning at the Student Union, just because staff, faculty, grad workers and student workers want their voices heard. And the Chancellor is showing zero leadership.”
Donde Plowman’s rebuttal to the situation said otherwise. She continued to go about the rest of the celebration greeting others, while being surrounded by upset protestors of both faculty and students.
“You know, this group has never asked for a meeting with me, I don’t know exactly what their issues are. I’m happy to sit down with them. So I did hear there were gonna be some people, yeah,” Plowman said. “We’ve already done a number of things I think they’re talking about, but I am happy to sit down with them and see what it is specifically.”
Plowman said she is open to make negotiations to the situation, but it’s apparent that there is a miscommunication in what actions are being taken and what is being heard. Though Plowman’s ideas are going to be translated to the Board of Trustees next month, protestors were clear that they want the Chancellor to take action now.