Randy Boyd has a lot to accomplish during the next 24 months on the job as the University of Tennessee system's interim president, and he says he has committed to it with a "sense of urgency."
Though he said he doesn't seem himself as a candidate for the permanent position, he does consider his new role as a way to accomplish the same goals he had as a governor candidate.
"It was always about my mission, and my mission was about the Drive to 55, advancing education in our state, and about helping people in our rural communities. And not being governor just means that I had to find a different means to the end, the end remains the same," he told the Times Free Press on Tuesday. "As interim president of UT, I can probably do more for the things I am passionate about than in the other role."
Boyd, a Tennessee alumnus, lost to Bill Lee in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary and was later named interim president unanimously by the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees in September.
Boyd has committed to six major priorities, among them being the search to find his successor, he said, which means he won't seek out the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Lamar Alexander in 2020.
Alexander on Monday announced it's time for him to leave office. Gov. Bill Haslam acknowledged he was giving the seat "serious consideration" amid the rumors that both Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann also are considering a run.
Boyd said he has no interest in running for Senate.
"It just seems so far removed from the state of Tennessee, I couldn't see myself in Washington, D.C., arguing about things and not getting as in depth," he said.
Having only 24 months or less to tackle his goals adds to that sense of urgency, he said.
"I started working the minute they announced I was even a candidate for the position," Boyd said.
"For somebody that grew up in the shadow of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville I thought I knew the UT system pretty well, [but] I've been amazed and surprised nearly every hour. Everywhere you turn, UT is there and UT is doing something impactful. It's such an incredible resource for our state."
As part of his two-year plan at UT, in addition to finding his successor, Boyd said he hopes to develop the system's relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, increase the university's engagement and collaboration with the community, build the system's brand, increase transparency, and, most importantly, he said, focus on student success.
"Everything, every day has to be about making sure students [are] successful," Boyd said. "I want to make sure that culture is enhanced during my two years here."
He also praised the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga — the state's local presence that joined the system in 1969 — and its focus on students in recent years.
"The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is a shining star in the UT system and that's because of the incredible, transformative leadership you have at the university," Boyd said. "Steve Angle as chancellor has done an incredible job."
UTC has topped the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's state rankings for performance funding four years in a row, Angle and Boyd told the Times Free Press.
Boyd said he is looking for transformative, innovative leadership similar to Angle's for Knoxville.
Student achievement, which Angle said UTC has tackled over the past five years, is one area Boyd plans to tackle by ensuring the university system continues to grow talent from the state, increase graduation rates (especially four-year graduation rates) and increase overall enrollment.
"You can be in meeting for hours and nobody ever talks about or brings up the word 'students,'" Boyd said. "We can talk about tenure, we can talk about buildings, we can talk about all these other things but too often students don't come up."
Boyd plans to focus on both out-of-state students, who are profitable for universities and the communities they join, and students who have completed their two-year degrees and certificates at community colleges through the Tennessee Promise program and are looking to transfer to four-year institutions.
At UTC, school leaders have doubled the four-year graduation rate from 16 percent to 32 percent in the past five years. Angle said the university has increased student success by focusing on academic advising and prerequisite courses that might be barriers to success. It has also boosted student success by creating a sense of community and connecting students to campus, whether through living on campus or in partner housing within walking distance of campus.
Angle said his administration has "taken on some of the easy problems," but now has "the ability to have a bigger impact."
Boyd also said the system plans to continue to manage tuition costs, deliver services more efficiently, and leverage relationships with those TN Promise students.
Though 60 percent of TN Promise students initially indicate they want to attend a four-year university, only about 12 percent eventually make it there. There are many barriers to student success, with affordability and rising student debt being one of the primary areas of concern.
"We are continuously looking for ways to make our universities more affordable," he said. "Tennessee is one of the most affordable states in the country and our students graduate with less debt."
Despite receiving high praise from the interim president, Angle said he's not interested in taking Boyd's job once he moves on.
"We love Chattanooga, me, my wife and my kids; we absolutely love being in the city, being a part of the community. We've got a lot to follow through on at UTC, and I want to see it become a reality," Angle said. "I guess you never say never, but that's not a job I'm interested in."
Angle added that he enjoys Chattanooga and the opportunity to make a change here.
"I like being on the campus and making a difference, and there's something special about this community," he said. "It's a great place."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.