By Bill Poovey, Associated Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — After almost a year as president of the University of Tennessee, there is no hiding Joe DiPietro’s enthusiasm for his system-wide strategic plan, his efforts to streamline the replacement of outdated learning facilities and promote all the campuses.
In the most publicly visible part of UT, DiPietro also shares the frustrations of many Vols’ fans about the losing football season and the shake-up in men’s basketball.
He told The Associated Press those programs are rebuilding and he has confidence in the people leading them.
Asked about repercussions of basketball coach Bruce Pearl’s firing in March, DiPietro said the Knoxville chancellor manages athletics but “the key is in rebuilding the program from a low spot, you need to, one, have patience.”
After a losing season under football coach Derek Dooley and the basketball team currently 4-6 under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin, DiPietro said, “We are not pleased.”
Referring to those coaches and recently hired athletic director Dave Hart, DiPietro said, “We have the right people.”
“With the coaches we’ve got and the AD, we will get there,” he said. “I’d ask the fans to be patient and supportive.”
As UT’s 24th president, at a time DiPietro has described as the most financially challenging in modern history and with state agencies warned to brace for possible budget cuts, he calls it encouraging that officials in Nashville have started seeing an uptick in tax revenues.
DiPietro, 60, said the most pressing need is funding for new buildings, repairs and renovations.
In the budget year that started July 1, state funding was down $112 million from 2008, almost 22 percent.
To help make that up, student tuition has more than doubled in the past decade — up by 12 percent just last fall for undergraduates in Knoxville — and DiPietro said the tuition outlook for next year is uncertain. He said students in Knoxville agreed to pay a fee that is helping speed up planning to replace outdated labs and learning facilities.
DiPietro is also involved in discussions of ways to make tuition more predictable so parents and students can better prepare for years ahead.
He said any tuition increase next year hinges on what the state provides.
“It’s really a balancing act,” he said.
DiPietro is supporting a proposal that would have universities and colleges pay a share of the front-end costs for campus construction, a change that would speed up those projects. He is also among higher education administrators and officials encouraging Gov. Bill Haslam to support a proposed $2.1 billion capital improvement plan for higher education.
The UT president said it helps that Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor who is a university supporter and whose family has repeatedly made generous donations, is familiar with UT.
The governor, whose Republican administration is developing a budget for fiscal 2013, said in a statement that he does “want to increase the amount of funding going to higher ed capital in Tennessee.” He has not made any comment on the $2.1 billion proposal.
DiPietro said there is no reason for anyone at UT to expect special treatment from Haslam but it is helpful that he knows the landscape and issues.
“If you go look at the chemistry building here in Knoxville it is in about the same shape as the one I trained in at the University of Illinois in the early 1970s,” DiPietro said.
DiPietro, who started the $420,000-a-year job in January after working as chancellor of UT’s Institute of Agriculture, said a key goal of his first year was to “develop a sense of teamwork and commitment.”
He is overseeing a new strategic plan for the next decade that is expected to be completed next June. DiPietro has said developing the plan involves everyone affiliated with UT and is intended to “advance the educational, discovery, creative and outreach programs of all UT campuses and institutes.”
The university system has an enrollment of about 50,000 students at campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin; the Health Science Center in Memphis; state Institutes of Agriculture and Public Service; and the Space Institute in Tullahoma.
DiPietro said the graduation rate is up by 2 percent or more, students are now able to use lottery scholarship money for summer classes and research dollars have increased. After several years of no pay raises for university employees, DiPietro said he was pleased that he was able to help secure increased compensation for system employees, in some cases up to 5 percent, which he said is essential to keep pace with peer universities.