University of Tennessee President John Petersen visited Knoxville on Friday, Aug. 3, and met with UT employees across campus and with community and business leaders. The Knoxville stop was part of a week-long series of visits to campuses and units across the state.
“The state is the university’s campus, and UT touches the lives of all Tennesseans,” said Petersen.
Key goals for UT include workforce development through education, driving economic development with research and partnerships, and health care delivery across the state.
UT stimulates economic development through research, technology and workforce development, ultimately enhancing the quality of life for all Tennesseans, he said.
Petersen fielded questions and suggestions from employees, administrators, legislators, business professionals and community members. The discussion included employee compensation, research funding and statewide education. Employees wanted to know why health care premiums are rising and what efforts have been made to improve employee compensation.
“About 70 percent of our budget is people; it’s people who make the institution run. We want to keep compensation a priority as we move forward,” Petersen said, adding that every employee plays a role in the university’s accomplishments.
“We asked you to do more with less, and you did it.”
He assured employees that their contributions to the university are valued, adding, “It’s the collection of everybody we have working together that makes this institution a success. All our jobs are needed, from the chancellor to the carpenter. All jobs are important.”
Through economic development, in particular, the university will do its part to demonstrate funds appropriated for UT are a wise investment. Petersen noted the biofuels initiative will yield potentially $400 million in tax collections and other revenue within 15 years and ethanol as a source of up to one-third of the state’s fuel consumption within 10 years. Intellectual property returns resulting from biofuels technology and process discoveries hold additional revenue promise for the university, he added.
The biofuels initiative is heavily based on the cultivation of switchgrass, a plant grown much like hay, which can be converted into ethanol for fuel. It is expected to begin having an impact on reducing the nation’s dependence on imported petroleum within five years.
Petersen said 1.5 million acres in Tennessee’s rural counties are unused or underutilized. By creating jobs and a cash crop for farmers–particularly in the state’s most economically distressed areas–the biofuels initiative also is expected to have a positive impact on quality of life for communities most in need. The program has the potential to enhance income for residents of those counties. With enhanced income come improved health status, reduced health care costs, and educational attainment.
Tennessee is ranked 46th in the nation for adults with bachelor’s degrees, at 21 percent, said the president. The national average is 26.5 percent. More of the educated are clustered in Tennessee’s cities, and college-educated adults may be as little as five percent of the population in some of the rural counties. Improving the economy in these counties will offer increased access to higher education as well.
Hope scholarships are keeping the some of the state’s best students in Tennessee.
“Keeping the brightest students in the state is going to help us,” said Petersen. “It will change the culture of our students and aid retention.”