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UT Knoxville’s chancellor champions innovation as university grows in every area

By Shannon Smith, Teknovation Assistant Editor, PYA

Many of East Tennessee’s leading innovators, thinkers, and entrepreneurs all seem to have one thing in common – a tie to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT Knoxville).

That could mean they were a student at UT Knoxville, benefitted from the UT Research Foundation, won a pitch competition through the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, had workspace at the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm, or partnered on a project with professors and researchers from the Tickle College of Engineering.

UT Knoxville’s impact is wide-reaching when it comes to making East Tennessee a place where people want to start their businesses. And at the helm of it all is Chancellor Donde Plowman.

“I’m the chief cheerleader,” she said.

Since Plowman took over as UT Knoxville’s Chancellor in 2018, she said the university has only grown.

“We have grown in almost every facet,” said Plowman. “We’ve grown in enrollment. We have grown in retention of students who come back from their freshman and sophomore years. We have grown in dollars we’re getting from the state. Our research expenditures are twice as high right now today as they were last year. I mean, it’s hard to name something that we’re not just moving up in.”

Plowman said strong academic programs, the way the university handled COVID-19, and the volunteer experience are what drove particularly more out-of-state students to come to Knoxville.

And now that they’re here, many aren’t leaving Tennessee.

Chancellor Donde Plowman. Credit: UT

“Of all these students who came in from out of state over the last five years, about 40 percent of them stayed in Tennessee and took jobs,” said Plowman.

Many of those jobs are in Nashville, but as the Knoxville-Oak Ridge area becomes a bigger hub for innovation, Plowman said she can see future growth in East Tennessee.

“One of the most tremendous assets we have as a university is we’re 30 minutes from Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL),” she said. “And we have scientists at the lab, faculty at the university, hundreds of them and we’re working together on joint projects.”

That’s coming together now through the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute.

“It’s an attempt to try to provide some coordination of all of those efforts and to work together in a more systematic way,” said Plowman. “It’s where we can all work on bigger grants. Where we’ve got interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs that are contributing to innovation and new kinds of jobs and workforce development. I’m really excited about that.”

There’s also the growth of research at the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm.

“That’s a great, great opportunity for us. It’s so close,” said Plowman. “And we’re guiding the development and really looking forward to some additional new buildings, places where the faculty and their graduate students can come and be sitting right there with Volkswagen executives and people from Eastman, trying to help them solve their problems with our research abilities. I think the sky’s the limit.”

Plowman said all of these initiatives add to the economic growth of the region, as well as the state.

“We need more high-tech jobs and high-tech businesses, as a state,” said Plowman. “As a state, we rank pretty high in the amount of research and development we do across all the institutions. But where we don’t rank high is in terms of translating that research into new businesses. And so that’s a huge emphasis we have in our new strategic vision – translating the research we do into marketable ideas that create new businesses.”

She said programs like speaker series and pitch competitions within UT Knoxville’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation help that goal of supporting student business ideas.

“Whether we’re turning out students who create their own businesses or go into companies all over the state that are needing a different kind of workforce, we have a covenant with the state to do exactly that,” said Plowman. “And I take that really seriously as part of our mission.”

When people hear about UT Knoxville, Plowman said she hopes several different things come to mind.

“Great university. Brilliant faculty. Great, smart students. We’re one of the top Fulbright producers in the country. I want them to think about a great athletic department, but we’re about so much more than just athletics. A rising tide lifts all boats. We’re trying to lift all the boats.”

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