Jimmy Cheek remembers a career full of challenges, but not regrets

Former UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek reminisced on his career during his final lecture on Monday, Feb. 27 in the Toyota Auditorium of the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy.

His lecture focused on some of the obstacles he faced in his tenure as UT Chancellor and throughout his lifetime. “I found out that it’s very important to have people that you can depend on,” Cheek said. “Not just at your university, but at other universities that you can call on, bounce ideas off of.”

Cheek, a first generation college student from Texas, spoke of his time at Texas A&M University. He said his family was surprised when he told them that he wanted to be a faculty member at a university after he graduated, but that they were always supportive.

Reflecting on his career, Cheek acknowledged that it was not always easy. He was sometimes met with opposition, cynicism and limited support. “I’d [say] that you learn a lot from positive experiences, but those negative experiences stick with you a lot longer,” he said. “We didn’t have the resources we needed, and so we worked hard on development. And through persistence, determination, a belief that we could do it and instilling hope in individuals, that’s how we overcame those things.”

He gave credit to students for pushing the university to be the best that it could be. “Quite frankly, our students were the most optimistic, and I was always pleased about that. They were always the most determined to improve the university.”

As cited by Cheek, UT’s graduation rate was around 60 percent when he took office. Now, it’s closer to 72 percent. Retention rates improved by about four points, to 87 percent. Many of the new programs aimed at improving these rates, as well as several construction projects on campus, were part of a larger plan to make the school a Top 25 public research university, a highly respected status obtained from US News and World Report rankings. The challenge to make it onto the list was accepted shortly after Cheek’s arrival at UT at the request of then-Governor Phil Bredesen. While UT has not yet made the Top 25, the university got a bit closer under Cheek’s leadership.

Does Cheek have regrets about his career, or wish he could do any part of it over again? “I really don’t think so. I have second-guessed things that we have done, I guess we could have done things differently, or I guess perhaps better,” he said. “We could have communicated better, or communicated more, but that’s all hindsight. I think we played the game as it came along, and we played as well as we could.”

Cheek was the seventh chancellor of the University of Tennessee, and held the position from 2009 until February of this year. He stepped down and was replaced by the University of Cincinnati’s Beverly Davenport earlier this month. Davenport was officially nominated for the chancellorship in November of 2016.

Edited by McKenzie Manning

Featured image by Faith Held

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