University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro has been on the job for only 10 months, but he's set positive goals for the institutions he oversees. It's difficult to say at this point if his objectives can or will be met, but his obvious grasp of the complex problems that currently confront public higher education in Tennessee and his understanding of what is required to build a top-tier university system strongly suggest that he is on the right track.
His task is many-faceted. Most individuals probably view DiPietro as the head of the Knoxville campus, but he is more than that. He also oversees campuses in Chattanooga and Martin; the Health Science Center in Memphis; the statewide Institutes of Agriculture and Public Service, and the Space Institute in Tullahoma. Each entity has different needs and goals. DiPietro's challenge is to help each serve its constituency even as it plays a role in a larger system.
To that end, DiPietro and his advisers have set individual goals for each school. DiPietro wants the Knoxville campus to earn a place among the top 25 public research institutions in the nation. He wants the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the University of Tennessee at Martin to secure spots among the top five public master's-degree universities in the South. He understands that will take time, perhaps a decade or more, and significant institutional change and financial support.
He's willing to make those investments. DiPietro points out that that students entering the schools he oversees this year have higher grade point averages and ACT test scores than ever before. And he's working to improve graduation rates and to reduce the number of years it now takes many students to graduate. Both are necessary if UT Knoxville is to reach DiPietro's goal.
The president is committed, too, to providing a place for every Tennessean who wants to earn a university agree. He's aware that tougher admission standards in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin (as well as the state's other public colleges and universities) can make that difficult. To that end, he's embraced programs that provide seamless entry for community college graduates into four-year schools. DiPietro correctly says that approach provides an opportunity for all who want a university education to pursue it.
DiPietro, for the moment, is mostly saying and doing all the right things. He even seems intent on treating UTC fairly, a stance that many here believe has not always been the case. The measure of DiPietro's success, though will be determined in the future -- after time and, perhaps more importantly, continued financial pressures on the state's higher education system have interacted with his vision of the university system of the future.