What will it take?

Students move into New Hall South during this year’s Great Move-In Day.

As we anxiously await the return of more than 10,000 students to campus next week, the seasonal rhythms are very familiar. Excitement is building for the start of fall classes, football games and concerts.

Everything seems normal, but I am unable to get this simple question out of my mind. What will it take for these students to compete and succeed?

After all, that is what Tennessee Tech is known for. We have the best educational return on investment in Tennessee. This is based on our affordable tuition, coupled with successful career placement for our graduates.

However, things are not like they used to be. The world that these students face is changing dramatically and rapidly before our very eyes. And we risk missing the message because we are so focused on the present.

In his book “The Industries of the Future,” Alec Ross clearly points out in lay terms the changes we are about to experience due to technological achievements in genomics, robotics, codification of money and markets, cybersecurity, big data, and autonomous transportation.

The relatively recent changes we have experienced in communication, e-commerce, advanced manufacturing and medicine will most assuredly pale in comparison to what is rapidly approaching. Imagine riding in a driverless car, direct delivery of groceries and other products to your home without even having to place an order, eating fresh produce that was never touched by human hands or grown in the ground, no more need to carry cash or credit cards, and medical treatment that is specific to your personal genome.

These changes may be both hard to believe and a bit scary, and history teaches us that change creates both challenges and opportunities. There will be winners and losers. There will be new careers created and old jobs eliminated.

So back to my question. What will it take for our current students and future graduates to compete and succeed in this world of dynamic change?

As a leading technological university, this question is core to our nature and mission. We are not only heavily involved in the creation of many of these new technologies, but we stand in an ideal position to educate our students on the social, economic and historical impact of these technologies.

It is no longer enough to simply be technologically literate. Graduates today must understand how to utilize the technology most effectively for social and economic benefit. This is what sets Tennessee Tech apart from most other universities.

I am proud to say that Tennessee Tech continues to offer a real education, for real people, who seek a real career!

Welcome to the new academic year. This is going to fun!

Go Eagles! #WingsUp

P.S. I want to especially thank Dr. Barbara Fleming for the book recommendation.

Posted in Messages

Don’t Wait for Tennessee Tech Tomorrow, Make It

There’s nothing too bold and nothing too big for Tennessee Tech University.

For the 600-plus campus and community members who participated in or visited the Tennessee Tech Tomorrow event in Bryan Fine Arts a couple of weeks ago, the energy created by students and faculty left us all more sure of this statement than ever.I challenged the audience there, and I challenge you here, to think about your role in this university’s future. My thoughts that day capture my belief we are ready to change the course of our university in a positive way by embracing change, risk and unlimited possibilities.

If you did not get a chance to visit the building project showcase on that day that features the Science Building, Jere Whitson Building, new Student Recreation Center, and golf course, the same video and presentation board display will be set up in the Tech Pride Room from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, April 17. I encourage you to drop in if you have a few minutes.

As you read the following thoughts, I encourage you to see yourself as a vital part of Tennessee Tech Tomorrow.

There’s a natural humility here. That’s part of our character.

But I challenge you to say: WE ARE TENNESSEE TECH!

Technology is the currency of the 21st century. That means we own the bank!

I challenge you:

  • To dare to fail and learn
  • To never settle for good enough
  • To take a risk that scares you and excites you at the same time

For those of you who are innovators, entrepreneurs and risk takers, I challenge you to take one, or two, or ten people on your journey.

Here’s the deal: There is no secret plan for Tennessee Tech Tomorrow.

Tennessee Tech Tomorrow is YOU. It’s each one of us.

Many of you are already dreaming it, pursuing it, living it.

The examples are both numerous and compelling, from the innovations occurring in the iCube, to the student entrepreneurs in the Eagle Works competition, to our growing national leadership in cybersecurity, to the development of next generation agriculture and healthy food options, to our computer science faculty support of new high tech, high paying jobs for our local community. These are just a few of the most recent examples of the Tennessee Tech of Tomorrow.

There is not enough room here to list them all. However, there is enough energy, and talent, and courage at Tennessee Tech to carry us out of the past and into a more exciting future. What do we learn from these efforts?

Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do next.

Don’t sit on the dock waiting for your ship to come in. Row out and meet it!

Be Bold. Fearless. Confident.

And don’t wait for Tennessee Tech Tomorrow. Make Tennessee Tech Tomorrow.

Wings Up!

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Open letter to the Tech Community: Even in difficult times, our focus is on students

This past week at Tennessee Tech has been hard on a deeply personal level, both to many members of the Tech community and to myself: 19 valued Tech employees were notified that they would be laid off at the end of April. These particular positions were selected not due to poor performance on anyone’s part, but rather due to the continuingly changing nature of our operations.  To date, all anticipated lay-offs have been communicated and we do not expect any further lay-offs to be necessary.

I understand that many of you may feel anxious or nervous during this time, and I wanted to provide additional context to what has happened.

Tennessee Tech, like most public universities, functions on a very thin financial margin yet is expected to perform at a very high level in an increasingly large array of areas above and beyond the traditional classroom. Since most of Tech’s budget is dedicated to people, occasionally it becomes necessary to adjust personnel budgets to align with projected tuition revenue. Although we try to make these adjustments naturally through normal employee attrition, that is not always possible.

Current and future competitive challenges realized by a multiyear enrollment decline compounded by a recent over commitment of scholarship funds have forced us to make these particularly difficult decisions in order to ensure the on-going financial health of the institution (see my blogs from Jan. 25 and Feb. 17 for more details).  Appropriate controls have already been established to prevent any future over commitment of scholarships and we are aggressively moving toward an overall strategic plan for enrollment development.  The guiding principal throughout this process was to ensure that our academic mission and the student experience remain our absolute priority. Ultimately, our goal is always to provide the best possible educational experience at the most affordable cost to the student.

I could never overstate the difficulty of these decisions, regardless of how necessary they may be. We value each of the individuals affected and will continue to help them throughout this transition in every way possible.

We must also remember that our core mission of educating students continues. We must not simply continue with the Tennessee Tech of today, but aggressively continue to build the Tennessee Tech of tomorrow that will be required for future generations of students.

To that end, over the rest of this year we will see completion of some projects, such as the newly renovated Jere Whitson Building that reopens in May, as well as the start of new ones. We will break ground on the new student fitness center in April, and the groundbreaking for the new laboratory science building will be this fall. We are also continuing to develop and implement new academic programs, such as the master’s in accountancy, which will be subject to the approval of Tech’s Board of Trustees at their first meeting later this month.

All of these projects have one thing in common: they are happening because they are needed to better serve and educate Tech students.

Even a superficial survey of Tennessee Tech history clearly illustrates the financial challenges that have often come our way. And during these challenges, Tech has come together, rallying around our common cause of providing a transformative education to students with the ultimate goal of enabling them to make their world better. We must remember that each day, we continue this work: We strive to help students excel.


Posted in Messages

Update on FY18 university budget

News about next fiscal year’s budget continues to evolve, and we shared the latest information with the Budget Advisory Committee yesterday.

As we continue to work on this issue, our primary objectives are to serve students, protect our core mission, preserve dollars for the academic units, and optimize efficiency of operations through restructuring and process improvements.

At the committee meeting, we reviewed Tech’s 2017-2018 fiscal year budget in light of the governor’s recently released state budget and discussed the following points:

  • The governor’s budget placed limitations on the way we can use its funding of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s (THEC) proposed outcomes formula budget.
  • This resulted in $1 million less than expected to address current operations needs.
  • The governor’s budget includes partial funding for a 3 percent mandatory salary pool for Tech employees.
  • Tech is seeking flexibility in using the 3 percent salary pool and keeping discussions going about possible new funding.
  • The THEC-recommended $700,000 due to Tech’s Carnegie reclassification was not funded in the governor’s proposed budget.
  • We received an additional $500,000 to support our cybersecurity efforts.
  • We remain optimistic that no academic unit will ultimately realize any budget reductions for FY18.

After our previous Budget Advisory Committee meeting, we faced a budget reduction of $2.6 million due to anticipated lost revenue from tuition dollars and unanticipated increases in scholarship awards.

We will fix the issue related to scholarship awards. We are taking action now to put the awarding process under thorough review. We are putting controls in place and making it a priority to create a new award strategy that maximizes the benefits of scholarship award dollars. An ad hoc scholarship committee of faculty, staff and administrators will review processes, evaluate effectiveness and suggest changes.

For now, the increased costs for the 3 percent salary increase and the lack of flexibility to use these funds means the university has to make an additional $1 million in budget reductions for FY18. The previous $2.6 million budget reductions were evenly split between instructional and non-instructional units. Only non-instructional units will absorb the additional $1 million.

This means we cannot avoid a reduction in force for administrative operations, but every unit is working hard to minimize the impact.

Division leaders have been asked to propose budget reductions based on the current information we have. Each division is reviewing its operational budget and functions to reduce expenses and protect Tech’s critical mission of serving students.

Priority is being given to setting priorities and restructuring within each division, and divisions are expected to look at how functions fulfill current university needs. All administrative divisions are proposing cuts, but not all are submitting plans for a reduction in force.

The impact on budgets and positions will be evaluated and shared in early March.

This places us in a situation where the university will have a reduction in force while at the same time awarding raises from the 3 percent salary pool. Until the legislature passes a final budget, I will continue to ask for flexibility with the appropriated dollars and ask for additional funding as originally recommended by THEC.

Although I had hoped to share better news with you at this point, this is where we are today. The events that will ultimately determine our FY18 budget will be the first Board of Trustees meeting on March 23, the end of the legislative session in April and final state appropriations for next year, THEC’s final recommendations on tuition and mandatory fees in May, and then our Board meeting in June to approve our final FY18 budget.

I’m reminded of the tremendous progress we’ve made in our many recent student success initiatives, including improved retention, graduation rates and enhanced career opportunities. As we face our budget challenges, I see the same spirit of service in the division leaders who are working to protect and enhance our focus on students.

Posted in Announcements, Messages

Open letter to campus about next year’s budget

This semester we will focus as a university on increasing the opportunities to share news about our successes and challenges. I am committed to bringing you news as quickly and directly as possible this semester that is relevant to how we serve students.

This afternoon, we shared information with the Budget Advisory Committee, made up of students, faculty and staff, about our budget for the next fiscal year. The committee’s role is to vet all information and data made available to this group and provide insight and recommendations.

During initial preparations, the university is looking at a reduced budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year due to anticipated lost revenue from tuition dollars and unanticipated increases in scholarship awards.

Using current projections, the information shared today with the Budget Committee indicated a likely reduction in recurring funds of $2.6 million (1.7 percent of our unrestricted revenues) evenly distributed among non-instructional and instructional units. There are many variables that will play out this spring and next fall that have the potential to improve our outlook as we move forward into our new fiscal year. We will continue to work through the process as we move forward.

The positive leading indicators that we saw in the fall have held, with applications and admits for this fall up from the previous fall. Gov. Haslam will unveil his budget in the State of the State address next Monday. The state legislature will take up appropriations, and THEC will finalize binding tuition recommendations in early May. Finally, our new Board of Trustees will review and approve our new fiscal year budget in late May/early June.

Tennessee Tech’s unrestricted budget is predominantly tuition-based, with more than 70 percent of the university’s revenue coming from tuition. This makes us susceptible to fluctuations in enrollment. We are still working through the enrollment decline bubble that started in 2014 and continues as those entering freshmen continue with their college careers.

For our part, we will respond to state budget decisions, monitor enrollment trends, correct and put more controls in place as necessary, and communicate current circumstances as updated information becomes available. We have made significant enhancements in recruiting efforts and continue to monitor and make adjustments.

By communicating this news to you now, there is time for a thought-out and intentional response that will ultimately protect our core mission: the education of our students.

And, most importantly, the end of this story is not yet written.

Posted in Announcements, Messages

Thanksgiving Wishes

As we all take a break this week and have the opportunity to reflect on what we are thankful for, I thank every student for choosing Tennessee Tech.

That choice inherently includes trust, and with that trust comes responsibility.

Every day at Tennessee Tech, a community of faculty, staff and administrators with different backgrounds, experiences and beliefs comes to work for one reason: to serve students.  That hasn’t changed. This is the context for any conversation about how students are treated inside and outside the classroom.

As a community we show respect for differences and encourage open dialogue. We show it to our students; we strive to practice it with each other.

I am thankful for the campus community that serves, and the students who choose us to serve them.

I wish you a peaceful and happy Thanksgiving break.

Go Eagles!

Posted in Announcements

A historic moment: board appointees announced

Earlier today, Governor Bill Haslam announced his appointments to the inaugural Tennessee Tech University Board of Trustees. We are all indebted to Governor Haslam for his leadership and personal investment of time to seat such an impressive group of outstanding individuals. The eight appointments announced today are:

  • Dr. Barbara Fleming, senior health policy analyst and former physician at Walter Reed Army Medical Center;
  • Trudy Harper, founder and former president of Tenaska Power Services Company;
  • Tom Jones, co-owner and general manager of Research Electronics International;
  • Millard Oakley, former member of the Tennessee General Assembly and current board member of First National Bank of Tennessee;
  • Purna Saggurti, global chair of investment banking for Bank of America Merrill Lynch;
  • Johnny Stites, managing partner of XI Investments;
  • Teresa Vanhooser, former deputy director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and current senior consultant with Seabrook Solutions, LLC; and
  • Capt. Barry Wilmore, National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronaut.

Please see https://www.tntech.edu/board/members for complete biographical information on each board member.

These eight individuals are subject to confirmation by the Tennessee General Assembly during the 2017 legislative session prior to taking on any official duties. They will be joined on the newly established board by a faculty member selected by the TTU Faculty Senate and a student selected by the board once it has been officially empowered. We currently anticipate the new board to hold its first official meeting sometime in April 2017.

Please join me in offering our congratulations to these board appointees along with our collective gratitude for their willingness to devote their time and talents to join us in making Tennessee Tech the premier technological university that we aspire to become.

The news release from the governor’s office can be found at https://www.tn.gov/governor/news.

Go Eagles!

Posted in Announcements, News

Trust the process

It’s been a good week at Tennessee Tech by the numbers. Our first national rankings in U.S. News & World Report came, followed closely by news of a significant jump in our freshman retention rate.

As exciting as it is to share these numbers, it takes context and backstory to see how these numbers matter and shape our future. Marilyn vos Savant cautions, “Be able to analyze statistics, which can be used to support or undercut almost any argument.” Over the next few months, we’ll have ongoing discussions about the elements of our national ranking, but for now let’s look at what the retention rate increase really says about our campus.

Tech’s one-year retention rate for our cohort of first-time, full-time freshmen in Fall 2015 was 79 percent, by far, the largest one-year retention rate in the past 20 years.

This increase from the previous six year average of 74 percent is a result of vision, change, teamwork and hard work.

Though we were the envy of many regional universities at around 74 percent, we looked at what it would take to move the needle. Our Flight Plan goal, set three years ago, aspired to rise to 80 percent in five years.

Enrollment Management leadership asked that we put resources and focus on two areas: student class attendance and a support system that allows advisors to give excellent service to students.

In fiscal year 2013, we committed resources for the next year to hire 15 professional advisors and create a director of advisement services, a director of retention services and a director of military and veteran’s affairs. In 2014, colleges and professional advisors worked together to create a retention strategy centered in Student Success Centers in each college.

We found opportunities to use people involved in the student life cycle so that we had a long view of how advice and decisions would affect students throughout their college careers.

Creating a culture of student success before the first semester is key, so leaders worked together to create SOAR sessions that set high expectations and gave information so students know when and how to ask for help.

We also have seen a positive effect from preset schedules given to incoming freshmen. Since Summer 2013, we’ve had an 11 percent increase in the number of hours these students attempt, plus an almost 5 percent in increase in the number of these students above a 2.0 GPA, an important threshold in retention.

A registration campaign, which directs intentional contact with students who don’t register for their next semester classes by a certain time, has helped students overcome barriers to staying enrolled.
Through Freshman Flight Path, we contact about 600 freshmen per semester when they miss class. They may get an email, phone call or face-to-face visit from a resident assistant.

I’ve heard great stories about how RAs find ways to help students. If a student says they oversleep, some RAs set their own alarm clocks so they can go wake students up, even if they don’t have class, to help them develop a pattern of getting up on time.

One RA noticed several students were missing the same math class, a class the RA had taken, so he created an informal mini study group to help them with that class.

We continue to hear from our successful students that when they needed help, a genuine community of faculty and staff cared for them and helped them.

The great news is there are so many people involved in this success story across campus as Provost Ghorashi mentioned earlier this week in his note to the campus community. Thank you to every faculty and professional advisor who committed to our new approach. Thank you to support staff, resident assistants, admissions staff and orientation leaders. I want to particularly congratulate and thank Enrollment Management leadership, Bobby Hodum, Melissa Irvin and Julie Longmire. Great Job!

Go Eagles!

Posted in Announcements, News

What Do You Believe?

Event_Orientation_WOW_DancingOnDixie_19AUG16_00008 copy-smLife is good at Tennessee Tech to begin our second century. As we wrap up our first week of the fall semester, it is a beautiful late summer day in the Upper Cumberland. The 10,000-plus new and returning students animate the campus landscape and hallowed halls with their unique forms of positive energy. We feel the promise of this new academic year from the classrooms to the athletic fields. It is truly a special time of year.

Reading a common book serves as an annual ritual designed to welcome and acclimate our new freshmen class. This year’s committee selected This I Believe II, a book of short essays written by everyday people from all walks of life to express their personal perspectives about life. The effort originated with Edward R. Murrow in the early 1950s and has since seen a number of iterations in books, radio broadcasts and TV shows.

As you might guess, it is an easy but very thought provoking read. I was challenged by the freshmen orientation staff to write my own personal essay to share with incoming freshmen. It is actually much harder than I expected to condense my personal perspectives on life to 500 words, but I found the effort very rewarding. I encourage anyone not only to read the book, but to take the time to write your own personal essay for your own benefit. If you care to read mine, here it is.

Best wishes to everyone for a healthy and productive 2016-2017 academic year.

Go Eagles! #WingsUp

If you do write your own personal essay and would like to share it, you can do so at https://www.tntech.edu/machform/view.php?id=295994. The essays will be reviewed, and possibly posted online for public view.

Posted in Messages

A State of the University message to campus

At the end of each academic year, there’s a natural tendency to reflect on the health and well being of the institution.

I’m sharing a State of the University message with you to capture the accomplishments of faculty, staff and students as we conclude the semester.  I am happy to report that Tennessee Tech University is exceptionally healthy and secure in all areas of operations.

About four years ago, we collectively envisioned where we could take the university. We established leadership teams made up of faculty, staff and students.

Initially more than 50 members of the campus community came together in the Flight Plan process to address: What will Tennessee Tech become?

The major changes and successes we see today were born from the broad-based, data-driven, coherent process of setting goals and working together with discipline, persistence and intentionality as an entire campus community.

As we near commencement for our last graduating class of the Centennial Celebration, here are the ways we’ve improved and excelled in an effort to serve students.


Invested in Faculty and Programs

  • Five consecutive years of faculty/staff salary raises (average faculty salary has gone up 11 percent since 2012)
  • Increased full-time permanent faculty by 15 percent (55 faculty members) over five years
  • Reduced student-faculty ratio from 22:1 to 19:1
  • Added over four dozen new academic programs and concentrations

Improved Student Success Initiatives

  • Improved first-year retention rate to 75-76 percent, an increase of 5-6 percentage points
  • Improved six-year graduation rate to 53 percent
  • Saved and enhanced ROTC

Established best practices

  • Received exemplary on-site review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, our accrediting agency
  • Earned near perfect accreditation visit last year from ABET, the College of Engineering’s accrediting agency

Increased Research, Economic Development and Resources

  • Improved Carnegie classification to Doctoral/Research University
  • Received 13 Intellectual Property disclosures this year, a record number compared to the last 10 years
  • Received largest competitive grant ever awarded to Tennessee Tech (~$4 million)
  • Announced total research monetary awards for fiscal year 2016 already surpasses all of last year, even without two large recent announcements
  • Significantly increased research proposal submissions
  • Partnered with local community and state to recruit approximately 2,500 new jobs to Putnam County
  • Created the most dynamic student/faculty entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Southeast
  • Posted the largest private fund raising year in history, $22 million to date compared to previous high of $8.7 million

Expanded and Improved Facilities 

  • Approved funding for $90 million laboratory science building
  • Launched $45 million student fitness center project
  • Renovated and renamed Oakley Hall
  • Began renovation of Jere Whitson Building as a one-stop Welcome and Enrollment Center
  • Completed Centennial Plaza
  • Expanded and improved food service options


What’s next?

As we move toward a new governance structure, we welcome the opportunity to increase campus participation.

We are forming an eight-member transition taskforce to help act as a steering committee as we stand up an independent board. The taskforce will be made up of four faculty members and former Faculty Senate presidents, and four senior administrators.

The charge will include reviewing bylaws, overseeing progress and prioritization of policy changes, and reviewing infrastructure, staffing and data handling.

We have a lot of work to do, but there’s still a need for long-range, purposeful planning while we continue working.

I’m looking forward to doing this together. I welcome your continued conversation about the future.

Have a great summer. Wings Up!

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