The president of the University of Tennessee system is retiring this week, leaving behind campuses with growing enrollment and strong budgets. For the past eight years, Joe DiPietro has overseen three campuses, a health sciences center and extension offices in every county of the state.
DiPietro counts restructuring the system’s budget as his biggest success. In 2015, he sounded the alarm an impending budget gap of $377 million and then mustered the campuses to find savings and new revenue.
“We’ve closed that gap completely now. I’ll be leaving the office and the university in great shape financially,” DiPietro said in an interview with WPLN this month.
The system has also done well with fundraising — it now has four named colleges and a high-raising university foundation — as well as growing student enrollment, according to DiPietro. And, it’s been the benificiary of an increasing amount of state appropriations from the state legislature.
Tensions With State Lawmakers
But the relationship with state lawmakers has often not been rosy. As president of UT, DiPietro often appeared in hearings at the capitol. This was the part of his job that often got the most attention, because interactions were quite tense.
At a hearing in 2016, DiPietro was grilled by Republicans lawmakers over UT’s diversity office. Among them was Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, who asked DiPietro why there was a need for the university to make sure students were nice to each other, in her characterization. Later that day, the committee voted to take away funding for the diversity office and move it elsewhere.
“We know that, if you look at diversity and inclusion, that if you feel un-included you’re less likely to complete on time,” DiPietro said to WPLN. “This isn’t about trying to change somebody who comes to our place. … We don’t brainwash students.”
But, he says, many residents of Tennessee don’t agree that diversity initiatives are important, and they express their frustration to state lawmakers.
“So the reality, in Tennessee, is, until we can … convince the base that what I’m saying is important, we’re going to continue to have this argument,” he says. “And remember, we are a state institution. We do have a responsibility to the General Assembly and the governor. We don’t have the ability to tell them to take a hike. But again, I’ve not always been able to satisfy them.”
A more recent moment where DiPietro did not satisfy the state legislature happened in April, when lawmakers were voting on whether to approve members of a new UT board of trustees. Gov. Bill Haslam, with DiPietro’s support, had wanted to hold over four members from the old board, but lawmakers insisted on starting over with a clean slate: None of the four was approved.
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“It was one of the most disappointing days in my career in this job, to be honest with you,” DiPietro said. “None of them deserved what they got that day, in my humble opinion, and the lack of continuity is painful at moments.”
The nominees’ confirmation hearing happened to take place during UT Knoxville’s Sex Week, the annual weeklong event focusing on sex education, which many conservative lawmakers find appalling. DiPietro says he thought he had addressed their concerns.
But, he concedes, he could have done things differently to smooth over Sex Week with the legislature.
“You know, we really condemned the Nazis when they came to campus at Knoxville and said, ‘Look, we don’t like this kind of rhetoric, but we believe in the First Amendment, and we’ve got rules and laws that we have to live by,’ ” DiPietro said.
With Sex Week, he said, “We could have said the same thing, really. You know, ‘You have the right to speak, but you’re going to offend some people by what you’re going to talk about, and we need to be sensitive to that.’ “
DiPietro will be replaced by interim president Randy Boyd, a Tennessee businessman and former gubernatorial candidate. Boyd has said he does not plan to take a salary in the position.
Boyd will oversee the system at a moment when there’s already instability, including the brand-new board and a search for a new chancellor for UT Knoxville. Beverly Davenport was fired in May, when DiPietro released a public, scathing letter about her first year in UT leadership. DiPietro defends the decision to release the letter, saying it would have been requested by the press and released soon after anyway.
The new UT president will also oversee a system that has tried for years to be nationally competitive. UT leadership said years ago it wanted Knoxville to be listed among the top 25 public universities in the country. As of 2018, U.S. News and World Report
ranks it No. 52.
DiPietro acknowledges it’s unlikely to break into the top 25 by 2020 but contends that’s not the real mission.
“The journey to the top 25 is as important as arriving there, in the sense that you want to try to have as many top 25 programs as possible,” he said. “That’s what the focus ought to be on.”
DiPietro notes that UT’s relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory has never been stronger, which will help the school’s rankings. And he wishes reporters would focus more on this kind of innovation in the system.
UT, he said, is “not Sex Week. It’s not
gender-neutral pronouns, or diversity and inclusion. It’s about the fact that our research programs provide solutions that solve people’s problems,” he said.
“That we’re educating more students than we ever have before. That our graduation rates have gone up. That our retention rate’s at 81 percent and best in the state is among publics. That everyday we get up and go to work and make the state of Tennessee better.”