University of Tennessee at Chattanooga leaders are looking to the school's past as they reflect on its accomplishments in the past year, the progress on goals laid out in the current strategic plan and look toward the future.
Chancellor Steven Angle reported in his annual State of the University address Thursday that the "state of the university is strong," and he pointed to 1969 and the fiftieth anniversary of the school transitioning into the University of Tennessee system.
The setting, the newly renovated Guerry Center, and the re-dedication of the space was a nod to the cumulative effect that UTC's history as a small, private institution and its role in the Chattanooga community as a whole has on Angle's goals of providing a high-quality academic and educational experience to all students.
"As we look forward, we must first look back to the Nineteen Sixties. A decade that defined our country, culture and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga," Angle said under the copper-colored bulbs that adorn the chandeliers in the Guerry Center's renovated "reading room." "In 1969, the University of Chattanooga, a private liberal arts school, transitioned to a public institution, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, charged by its board with "affecting continued movement toward academic excellence.'"
In those 50 years, UTC has seen many changes, Angle said. Enrollment has increased from 1,300 students to 11,600, with the potential for more in the years ahead thanks to the new UT Promise Scholarship program.
It has expanded the number of degrees and programs offered, remodeled and built new facilities, including the renovation of the Guerry Center and the ongoing renovation of Fletcher Hall, home of the Gary W. Rollins College of Business thanks to a $40 million gift from Gary and Kathleen Rollins.
But Angle wants to keep the focus on the soul of the school: the students and the caliber of the education they receive.
He told the Times Free Press in an interview before the address that of the four goals laid out in the university's 2015-20 strategic plan, there is one that stands out and will continue being a focus moving forward: transforming lives through meaningful learning experiences.
"We are on a great trajectory, and our students are what's at stake," Angle told the Times Free Press. 'That's the future of our society, so if we do a good job, help them well in the classroom but help them apply what they're learning and help them learn about people and be able to put themselves in [the] positions of others, they'll be successful and they'll be great citizens also. That's what we're trying to convey as a sense of where we are and what we are doing."
UTC's partnerships with local businesses and organizations that recruit students as interns or hire recent graduates and the extracurricular opportunities it offers students such as Rocket Mocs, a competitive engineering team, or the Solutions Scholars program that allows students to research ways to solve a community problem, will help give students those types of "experiential learning" experiences that Angle believes will help prepare them for life after college.
The university has hired someone to coordinate undergraduate research, and a UTC student has been named a Fulbright Scholar for the first time in 50 years.
"That's part of our plan here, and somewhere that we really need to stand up," Angle told the Times Free Press. "Learning on a college campus isn't limited to the classrooms but it's everything about life. I feel like that is the path that we are on."
Since 2015, the school's graduation rate has increased to 64%, though it's still shy of its 75% goal. The latest freshman class increased the average GPA to a 3.58.
"Increased retention and higher graduation rates are measures of value, but we are also focused on the growth of every student as we work to provide broad cultural and societal experiences," Angle said.
An area that the school still has some significant work to do in is diversity and inclusion.
"The metrics in our strategic plan have seen significant progress in many areas, but not to the level we expect in diversity, inclusion and engagement," Angle said Thursday.
In the coming year, UTC will hire a cabinet-level leader of diversity, inclusion and engagement, as well as establish a Campus Commission on the Status of Women to be led by Pamela Ashmore.
"When we recall 1969 and the inclusion of Chattanooga City College, a predominately African-American junior college, as part of our own merger, it signaled a commitment to diversity, inclusion and engagement," Angle said.
Linda Frost, dean of the UTC Honors College, was enthusiastic about the dedication of the Guerry Center — named for former University of Chattanooga President Alexander Guerry — after Angle's address Thursday. She emphasized that achievements of Honors College students illustrate the academic goals the university has for all its students.
Frost also said she wanted the renovated Guerry Center to reflect the students who would call it home.
"When we began the design for the renovation of Guerry Center we wanted it to highlight both our history and our future, our traditions and our innovations, and I'm so excited that this design does all that," she said. "With the new Guerry Center the Honors College becomes a literal open door for students to have more initiatives than they know what to do with, for faculty who want to try out something new in the classroom and for anyone who is drawn to spending some time in this truly inspiring space."
In coming years, the university will continue to grapple with being a part of a larger, expanding state university system while maintaining its own identity. Enrollment might — and can — increase, though some might question the cost and value of a post-secondary degree.
"For UTC students, the value of a degree lies not just in competency in an area of study. Equally important is an understanding of their role and responsibilities as a caring, compassionate, engaged citizen of our society," Angle said. "As we work on issues like the cost of a college degree, we focus on the added value that comes with a college degree."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.