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August 11, 2021 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Deb Crawford is driven to “look for what is visible but not yet seen”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-series sharing the vision and passion of Deborah Crawford, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Deborah Crawford, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), draws insights and inspiration from a quote by Peter Drucker, the legendary management guru.

“He reminded us to look for what is visible but not yet seen,” she said, explaining that her job is to “help my colleagues and our current and future partners see what is possible. My faculty colleagues are inherently curious and talented individuals; part of my job is to help them see opportunities where their considerable intellect and experience can make a real difference.”

And, with significant federal investments in science, technology and innovation looming, Crawford sees all sorts of opportunities to advance the university’s research agenda through collaboration and formal alliances with many organizations.

“We are geographically well-positioned for the investment of federal dollars,” she says. “We’re well-positioned regionally to drive significant and inclusive growth in our innovation economy.” Add two major assets – Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which is co-managed by the University of Tennessee (UT) and Battelle, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – to the region’s strengths.

Of the decision by UT and the other two to make a significant investment to bring the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” here, she says that “Techstars is a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the region.”

Crawford saw the impact that a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem can have during a 20-month period when she served as Director of the International Computer Science Institute. The Berkeley, CA-based organization is one of the few independent, nonprofit research institutes in the U.S.

“It (entrepreneurship) was in the water there,” she says. As noted in past posts on, one of the goals that the “Big 3” (UT, ORNL and TVA) have for the Techstars program is to elevate the visibility of the region’s entrepreneurial and innovation assets.

So, how is Crawford spending her days?

“I’m spending time building my team, but also establishing trusted relationships,” she says, adding that the focus must be both internal and external.

In the case of the former, it’s attending to UTK and faculty needs. “I have to help our community be successful and do so in the context of our faculty’s individual goals and the university’s strategic vision,” Crawford explains. Her days are filled with meetings, and Jerri DAoust, her Assistant who has a long tenure at UTK, says the new Vice Chancellor probably knows more faculty after 12 months than she does after many years on staff.

As far as the larger community, she says it is deciding which opportunities, particularly those with a social impact, require UTK to be a catalyst and which ones require support. Crawford describes it as answering this question: “Are we up front or part of the supporting cast?”

She admits that her own personal tendency is to try to do too much. “I’m an organizationalist,” she says, explaining that her goal is to not just make a big splash, but to do so with initiatives that are sustainable.

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