In 2010, then-Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee challenged the University of Tennessee with the goal of becoming a Top 25 public research university by the year 2020. Since then, UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek has engaged in a relentless public campaign to make that happen.
If today’s rankings from U.S. News and World Report are any indication, the university has a long way to go to get to the magic number 25. In the magazine’s list of the nation’s top public universities, UT actually fell one spot from number 46 to 47. The annual list is an important recruiting tool for both students and universities.
But UT officials are quick to point out that the U.S. News and World Report ranking isn’t the Top 25 list they’re gunning for. “When we put together the Top 25, we said we want to be a Top 25 public research university,” says Cheek. “That means we’re not only concerned about undergraduates, we’re concerned about graduate students and we’re also concerned about research productivity and scholarship. So we’re competing on a whole variety of fronts. U.S. News and World Report only focuses on undergraduate education.”
So where is that Top 25 list and how close is UT from entering it? We may never know.
Cheek explains the Top 25 goal is a set of metrics compiled from several ratings sources, including the Lombardi-Capaldi study of American research universities. But in terms of an actual list that UT could someday enter, it doesn’t exist.
Cheek admits it’s confusing. “It’s not like there is a certain thing you have to do to be a Top 25 institution. It’s a variety of metrics and it’s not an exact science.”
Cheek says the university uses the Top 25 goal as a way of creating momentum toward a variety of singular goals. For instance, UT is seeing increases in retention and graduation rates, grants and contracts and fund-raising. And while it ticked up to number 47 this year, UT was ranked 52nd on the U.S. News and World Report list only four years ago. That’s progress, Cheek says.
So the lack of an actual Top 25 list doesn’t matter?
“Remember,” Cheek says, “it’s not the destination, but the journey.”