UTIA Priorities Poise Institute for Future Success

In the spring of 2015, President DiPietro was asked by the governor’s office to develop a funding request for the annual higher education budget hearing. In order to put in the “ask,” UTIA needed to provide (with a very short turnaround time) a list of faculty needs, but there was no succinct place to determine what the needs of each department's faculty needs. The deadline was met, but it became apparent that the Institute would be better positioned if our priorities were more clearly defined. Thus the UTIA Priorities initiative was born.

Initially tasked with determining faculty needs, the initiative grew to also have a strong focus on interdepartmental collaborations that look toward the future. The UTIA Priorities Committee continues to determine the hiring needs of UTIA departments, but the purpose has expanded to include working among thirteen departments and four units—AgResearch, CASNR, Extension, and Veterinary Medicine—to identify future program areas. As it is written, the Committee’s charge is to, “define priorities for future programs in UTIA and provide recommendations for determining a process to fill high‐priority faculty vacancies as they occur over time.”

The UTIA Priorities Committee was assembled to identify key issues facing rural and agricultural Tennessee. The group of seven, representing all UTIA mission areas, sought input via a survey of key stakeholders and UTIA staff and faculty from across the state. Participants were asked to identify events, developments, and trends affecting Tennesseans. Several themes emerged including the recommendation that priorities should place an emphasis on the state of Tennessee by using collaborative teams with programs that produce economic, health, and environmental outcomes.

Based on these criteria, departments were asked to submit proposals addressing grand societal challenges. Twenty-one proposals were received from faculty and staff, each focusing on interdepartmental, interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary programs built around ideas that address grand challenges. All proposals were reviewed and five priorities were established for UTIA:
  1. Strengthening Tennessee’s Health

  2. Protecting Tennessee’s Biodiversity and Environmental Quality

  3. Enriching Tennessee’s Economy

  4. Developing Tennessee’s Workforce

  5. Growing Tennessee’s Sustainable Food System

Faculty involvement has been key for this progressive enterprise. Dr. Becky Trout Fryxell, assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, was approached by her department head to submit a proposal. “I saw this as a great opportunity to examine the needs of my research program and help assemble a crossdisciplinary team based on skills or expertise rather than focusing on specialties. We were asked to submit forward-thinking proposals by focusing on what the problems of 2030 will be.” She also found the process to be engaging and says, “It was also good to listen to other proposals. Clearly in agriculture, there is still a lot to do.”

So what is the future of the UTIA Priorities initiative? The committee is currently writing a final report, but this initiative has already seen success. Two proposals have already taken off on their own: one group developed a white paper, and another group was approached by a company interested in their research. Interim Chancellor Tim Cross was also able to use the Priorities to inform his legislative request to fund critical faculty and proposed programs. For the future, the Committee would like to see infrastructure put in place so faculty can submit new proposals; this system would allow proposals to be reviewed by the chancellor and all four deans. To add to the success of these proposals and the Priorities, the Committee says that the most important outcome for this process is that faculty across departments are now talking and working to build teams around ideas.

Associate Dean for AgResearch David White also sees the potential for success, stating, “UTIA has made great strides in laying a modern foundation for strategic planning and advancement which builds on current faculty and resource strengths and provides solutions to address current and future knowledge gaps across multiple scientific disciplines. These strategic actions will provide faculty and staff with a new sense of collaborative direction, agreed upon priorities, and outline specific measurable goals which will enable us to both better serve the state of Tennessee as well as position UTIA as a global leader in new and innovative agricultural and natural resource sciences.”