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Donde Plowman brings builder's mentality to tumultuous year at the University of Tennessee

Through a pandemic and a shake-up of the athletics department, UT's Donde Plowman keeps her eye on results.

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University of Tennessee at Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman is photographed inside the Student Union on Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

Donde Plowman likes to be in charge, and she's not shy about it.

In matters big and small — from cleaning house in the athletic department to chasing down a bat that found its way into a drafty old office building — the University of Tennessee at Knoxville chancellor is out front.

“I am not ashamed to say, in higher education, I like being a leader,” Plowman said. “I like leadership. … I like helping people move together towards a dream.”

When Plowman was offered the job of chancellor in the spring of 2019, she saw big challenges — and big opportunities — ahead. 

The flagship campus she would be leading had been without a chancellor for nearly a year after Beverly Davenport was fired. The university and the system it is a part of were both under interim leaders.

Plowman was undeterred. She saw a blueprint awaiting her imprint.

“I’ve always described myself as a builder,” Plowman said. “If you talk to anyone at (the University of) Nebraska, that’s how I talked about myself. ... I feel proud of the successes I’ve had, but I’m still a builder. That’s why I want to be here.”

In the year and a half after she moved from the University of Nebraska to the University of Tennessee, she's had to tackle challenges no one saw coming.

First, a pandemic forced UT to close its doors on March 11, 2020, sending students home for online learning that extended through the end of the spring semester. The 2020 spring semester ended with no in-person classes or events like graduation. 

University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman and UT System president Randy Boyd attended a march in August against systemic racism in America led by Black student-athletes on the Knoxville campus. "They got to witness just how Black students were feeling and what it means to be an advocate for your community," said Karmen Jones, Student Government Association president.
University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman and UT System president Randy Boyd attended a march in August against systemic racism in America led by Black student-athletes on the Knoxville campus. "They got to witness just how Black students were feeling and what it means to be an advocate for your community," said Karmen Jones, Student Government Association president. Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel

Then a reckoning on racial injustice swept the nation, sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. A series of protests and marches took place on campus and in Knoxville.

Finally, as the calendar flipped into 2021, Plowman's office learned about serious and intentional recruiting violations by the football staff, and the chancellor took action without delay. Coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired on Jan. 18, 2021, and athletics director Phillip Fulmer announced he would retire on the same day.

What stood out about the swift firings and swift hirings for athletics director and football coach was how Plowman upended a cumbersome and clunky tradition that dragged on and turned off potential candidates.

She consulted widely without delay, but then narrowed her advisors to a small group to make the final — and widely lauded — hire of Danny White to head the athletics department.

Among the cadre of advisors was UT System President Randy Boyd, who hired Plowman. He told Knox News he knew right away she was the right person for the job.

“We connected from day one,” said Boyd, who was still the system's interim president at that time, but had set naming a new chancellor for the flagship campus as one of his top priorities.

UT System President Randy Boyd
“We connected from day one ... she was somebody that I could immediately relate to and talk to."

"The first time I picked her up in a plane in Nebraska and flew her back to Knoxville for that first interview, she was somebody that I could immediately relate to and talk to. We’ve had a strong partnership from the beginning.”

In a series of interviews Knox News conducted over several weeks with Plowman and those close to her — family, friends, colleagues and students — a clear consensus emerged that the 68-year-old chancellor's life journey has uniquely prepared her for the trio of towering challenges that arrived in sequence at the university.

'If we’re not aligned, it’s not going to work'

Boyd and Plowman quickly forged a tight working relationship between the leaders of the system and the university, two institutions that haven't always rowed in the same direction.

They've bonded over the fact that they're both early risers, often starting work or sending emails before the sun rises. They began meeting weekly for lunch, at first in public spaces (purposefully conspicuous to highlight their unity) but now in Boyd's office because of the pandemic.

When Plowman hired White in January, Boyd was joined by Board of Trustees Chair John Compton in the hiring inner circle. But that was it for the final decision-making, including a flight to Florida to meet with White, who was heading the University of Central Florida's rising athletics department.

Donde Plowman was determined to make a fast hire for athletics director to keep the process from jumping the tracks. She turned around the hire of new athletics director Danny White in three days, and White hired football coach Josh Heupel within a week. White (from left), Plowman, Heupel and UT System President Randy Boyd gather after the press conference introducing Heupel on Jan. 27, 2021, at Neyland Stadium.
Donde Plowman was determined to make a fast hire for athletics director to keep the process from jumping the tracks. She turned around the hire of new athletics director Danny White in three days, and White hired football coach Josh Heupel within a week. White (from left), Plowman, Heupel and UT System President Randy Boyd gather after the press conference introducing Heupel on Jan. 27, 2021, at Neyland Stadium. Caitie McMekin/Pool via News Sentinel, Knoxville News Sentinel

Plowman wanted to avoid what had happened with previous athletics hires, when bringing too many people into the search derailed deals, she said. Plowman needed just three days to hire White. Less than a week later, White hired Josh Heupel as the football coach.

Behind the Scenes: With no meddling, Tennessee could move swiftly, quietly to hire Danny White as Vols AD

“The relationship between the president and the chancellor is critically important,” Boyd told Knox News. “If we’re not aligned, if we’re not able to communicate, if we don’t like each other or trust each other, it’s not going to work.”

While the two have had different careers — Boyd spent his career in business and as an advisor on higher education for Gov. Bill Haslam before running for governor in 2018 while Plowman’s career has been in higher education — the two move to the same beat.

“We connected from day one,” Randy Boyd told Knox News about his relationship with Donde Plowman. Boyd and Plowman appear in person together frequently, a visible indication of the strong relationship between the University of Tennessee System and its flagship campus. Boyd introduced Plowman as the new chancellor at the Knoxville campus' Student Union on May 6, 2019.
“We connected from day one,” Randy Boyd told Knox News about his relationship with Donde Plowman. Boyd and Plowman appear in person together frequently, a visible indication of the strong relationship between the University of Tennessee System and its flagship campus. Boyd introduced Plowman as the new chancellor at the Knoxville campus' Student Union on May 6, 2019. Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

“Randy was a key factor, once I met him and when I interviewed, in me wanting to take this job,” Plowman said. “He was also a high risk, because at the time, he was interim. He’s an unusual profile for a university president. But I was attracted to his energy, and how he just wants to do big things.”

'They're taking selfies with the chancellor'

Plowman didn't grow up imagining a life in academia. The daughter of a Methodist preacher and a teacher, she wanted to become an English teacher. But after becoming involved in student life in college, and inspired by the work and the people in that field, she began pursuing a career in higher education.

She soon realized the people in charge had advanced degrees, and she began working toward her Ph.D. Though she originally began postgraduate studies "because I wanted that credential," Plowman soon found she loved doing research, especially into how businesses and large organizations function.

"My intellectual side of me got really charged in that," Plowman said. "I couldn't get enough of the reading and the research and then I started writing. I had a really successful career as a researcher ... and I could go back to that tomorrow."

'I'm still a builder': UT Chancellor Donde Plowman reflects on her career
Angela M. Gosnell, Knoxville News Sentinel

Plowman remains proud of a piece she and collaborators produced that was published in June 2007 by the prestigious Academy of Management Journal: "Radical Change Accidentally: The Emergence and Amplification of Small Change," a study of how radical change can occur unplanned in complex organizations.

It's an interest that drives her still, and makes her especially receptive to unorthodox and original approaches, and the hard business of listening (a trait often hardest for those at the top).

One Friday night, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was speaking on campus. Plowman had introduced him, and he expected her to cut out as soon as she could.

"I totally expected her to introduce me, and then do what most people would do on a Friday night at 7:30 — go home and not stay for the event," Haslam told Knox News. 

He spoke for about an hour, and when the event was over, he was surprised to see Plowman meeting with students in the audience. 

"They're taking selfies with the chancellor and they're having conversations," Haslam said. "I was amazed by how many students she actually knew. To me, that says the world about Donde. It was late on a Friday night, she had every excuse to slide out of an event ... but she stayed past the end just to engage with students."

'It gets easier when you say these are my principles'

Her brother, Tom Plowman, said she’s always been a leader. He recalls when she was in middle school, Plowman ran for and won a seat on the student council.

“I guess that’s kind of in her DNA to want to be out there and be trying to make an impact,” Tom said. 

Plowman was close with her father, the Methodist minister, and used to call him frequently to discuss leadership ideas or issues. Though her dad wanted her to be closer to home, and had hoped she'd one day become the president of the University of Tulsa, she knows he would have been proud she ended up in Knoxville.

Donde Plowman speaks at a press conference to introduce Danny White, the University of Tennessee's new athletics director. “I think she’s kind of a lot like my dad,” said Donde Plowman's brother Tom “He was real driven. He was just a preacher, but he believed in doing the right thing and he threw his all into everything.
Donde Plowman speaks at a press conference to introduce Danny White, the University of Tennessee's new athletics director. “I think she’s kind of a lot like my dad,” said Donde Plowman's brother Tom “He was real driven. He was just a preacher, but he believed in doing the right thing and he threw his all into everything. Caitie McMekin/Pool via News Sentinel, Knoxville News Sentinel

He died shortly before Plowman took the reins at UT, she said.

“I talked to my dad every day,” Plowman said. “He was amazing. I draw a lot of strength from him. I’ve looked back on leadership issues he had. When you’re a pastor, you’re a leader.”

Tom, who is 63 and lives in Texas, said he sees a lot of their father in his sister.

“I think she’s kind of a lot like my dad,” Tom said. “He was real driven. He was just a preacher, but he believed in doing the right thing and he threw his all into everything. … I see kind of a lot of similarities in that they’re both real driven.

"He’d be real, real proud of her.”

While people see Plowman for her decisive responses now, she didn't always see herself that way. At the beginning of her career, as an associate professor, she mentioned to a colleague that she sometimes worried others viewed her "as a doormat," an observation her colleague quickly rejected.

"I had less influence and I felt I was also more timid, and I think I thought of myself as struggling to deliver news that other people didn't want to hear," Plowman said. 

She wanted to "be like the person who just barges into a room and says 'That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard.'"

Over time, through her various positions and leadership roles, she tapped into her innate strength.

Donde Plowman
“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I only sweat the big stuff. I just want the moments to matter. I don’t like to waste time on things that aren’t going to lead to something impactful.”

"You get more practice when you get in these leadership positions because you do have to deliver news, sometimes, that people don't want to hear," Plowman said. "And one thing I've learned is that it gets easier to do when you say 'These are my principles.'"

One of those principles for Plowman is transparency: if she's honest with people about all the decisions she's making, it's "genuine without being harsh."

Plowman believes in self-appraisal, and willingly shares the results of her CliftonStrengths assessment, a skills evaluation tool created by Gallup.

Her greatest strengths, according to the assessment? She ranked high in strategy, achievement, positivity, futuristic thinking and maximization. Most of those measures relate to deep thinking about the future, accomplishing goals and encouraging those around you. 

Plowman said she likes that test because it focuses on people's strengths, not their weaknesses. As chancellor, she particularly relies on positivity during difficult times, she said. 

"My husband used to say that I'm just like the ultimate lemonade girl, making lemonade out of lemons," she said. "Even when difficult things happen at the university ... I try to figure out what we can learn, where are we going to fix things, how can we grow.

"If you don't do that, I don't know how you deal with tough decisions that leaders have to make." 

'The things I was scared of before I’m not scared of anymore'

A defining point in Plowman's life was the death of her oldest son, Chris. The 20-year-old rising junior at Trinity University in San Antonio died in a car crash 17 years ago, plunging her and her family into deep grief and forever changing her perspective on living life.

“Everything is dated since then,” Plowman said. “I think out of that experience came the longing to be about meaningful work, and the recognition that life is short, and that the kind of things I was scared of before, that I’m not scared of anymore.

"In some ways, coming through that gave me resilience, probably that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

'This is who I am': UT chancellor reflects on how grief has shaped her approach to life
Angela M. Gosnell, Knoxville News Sentinel

Her brother said that Chris’ death made Donde value family and relationships more. While the whole family was grieving, it brought them closer together.

It also brought out a strength in Donde, Tom said.

“It was a really dark time,” he said. “She had just an incredible strength to get through it.”

Grieving her son also put things into perspective. It made her reevaluate how she spends her time, and focus on meaningful accomplishments.

“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” Plowman said. “I only sweat the big stuff. I just want the moments to matter. I don’t like to waste time on things that aren’t going to lead to something impactful.”

'I admire a woman in charge'

Plowman was hired in spring 2019 and began at UT on July 1, 2019. She was previously the executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer at the University of Nebraska, as well as the dean of the College of Business. Located in Lincoln, Nebraska, the state's flagship Big Ten university enrolls just over 20,000 undergraduate students.

Taking the UT job was a professional homecoming — she had previously worked at UT as the management department head in the Haslam College of Business from 2008 to 2010.

Plowman has been steadfast in her reactions to challenges at UT. Throughout the pandemic, she has demanded compliance from students, faculty and staff.

Soon after the fall semester began, reports of students breaking COVID-19 guidelines reached Plowman’s office, and she didn’t hesitate. The university initiated disciplinary hearing against four students: three for throwing a party that did not follow social distancing rules, and a fourth for leaving isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

When students were slacking on wearing masks on campus at the start of the spring semester, she turned to social media to issue a public warning.

“That needs to stop,” Plowman tweeted. “We are not out of this pandemic yet and masks are required. Do your part, mask up and stay distanced.”

While some responses to the tweet claimed incorrectly that masks don’t work to stop the virus, others thanked Plowman for her reminder and her leadership. The tweet racked up more than 1,000 likes and 100 retweets.

When Chancellor Donde Plowman started to see students' lax response to COVID-19 safety protocols, she issued a public warning. “That needs to stop,” Plowman tweeted. “We are not out of this pandemic yet and masks are required. Do your part, mask up and stay distanced.”
When Chancellor Donde Plowman started to see students' lax response to COVID-19 safety protocols, she issued a public warning. “That needs to stop,” Plowman tweeted. “We are not out of this pandemic yet and masks are required. Do your part, mask up and stay distanced.” Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

Walking around on campus earlier this semester, Plowman praised students who were correctly wearing their masks and social distancing. She stopped by Steak 'n Shake in the Student Union to thank an employee she'd heard had been enforcing the mask rule. 

Karmen Jones, the Student Government Association president, said she respects Plowman's leadership, and how she lifts up women around her.

The two meet one-on-one about once a month, and are in other meetings together between 10 and 15 times a month, Jones said. 

"I've just received so many tips and so many great pieces of advice from her because she's a woman that's in charge, but she will take you along the way with her," Jones told Knox News. 

Soon after Jones was elected in 2020, UT athletes and students organized an anti-racism march on campus. More than a thousand people peacefully marched across campus.

In one of her first meetings with Plowman, a lunch at Yassin's Falafel House in Knoxville, the two discussed the march, which both Plowman and Boyd attended.

"They got to witness just how Black students were feeling and what it means to be an advocate for your community," Jones said. "There is always work to be done. There are things that I think, conversations that need to be had about what does Black Lives Matter, what does that march and that movement look like on our campus and how is that implemented."

While the university hasn't had "the perfect approach" to racist incidents on campus, Jones said she appreciates that Plowman has "not shied away from any of these hard conversations."

When it comes to things like enforcing COVID-19 guidelines, Jones said she respects Plowman's approach. 

"I love her approach, because I don't think any student is necessarily scared of Chancellor Plowman, especially when it comes to COVID response," Jones said. "I think we kind of look at her as a motherly figure, but also a great enforcer of what we need on our campus. She has a lot of hard decisions she has to make, but I admire a woman in charge."

'The potential for a real problem here was significant'

At the end of summer 2020, as students began returning to Knoxville for classes, Plowman began addressing the Knox County Board of Health regularly. She presented data points on how many COVID-19 cases were tied to campus and provided feedback to the board, especially when the topic of implementing a bar curfew came up. 

When bars along Cumberland Avenue were packed on the weekends, cases began spiking at UT and tensions grew between board of health members over the best approaches to mitigating the risk. Plowman appeared almost weekly to talk about COVID-19 and the need for a coordinated response to control it.

She was wading into a potentially fraught political situation, but she kept her focus on public health.

"I didn't even think about it," Plowman said. "I just felt like the community needs to know how we're doing. I felt this big responsibility."

She needed to be upfront with UT faculty and students, as well as the Knoxville community, she said. After Dr. Deborah Birx, former White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, visited campus and encouraged more restrictions, Plowman said she felt even more confident going before the board. 

"I felt a big responsibility that the public know how we were doing, because the potential for us to have been a real problem here, and we still have that potential, it was significant," Plowman said. 

Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told Knox News he continues to see in UT Chancellor Donde Plowman what he saw when they first met: a deep commitment to students. Plowman didn't hesitate to ask the Knox County Board of Health to put in place pandemic restrictions on bars when cases on campus started spiking. "I didn't even think about it," Plowman said. "I just felt like the community needs to know how we're doing. I felt this big responsibility."
Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told Knox News he continues to see in UT Chancellor Donde Plowman what he saw when they first met: a deep commitment to students. Plowman didn't hesitate to ask the Knox County Board of Health to put in place pandemic restrictions on bars when cases on campus started spiking. "I didn't even think about it," Plowman said. "I just felt like the community needs to know how we're doing. I felt this big responsibility." Saul Young/News Sentinel

Again relying on her principle of transparency, Plowman said the university needed the help of the larger community to get COVID-19 under control.

"We don't police The Strip," Plowman said, referencing the part of Cumberland Avenue where students were gathering. "That's not campus. So we needed the help from the county health board."

COVID-19 cases have remained relatively low on campus during the spring semester, with just over 100 active cases three weeks after classes began. Now almost a month into the spring semester, that number has remained under 100. 

It's a huge improvement over the fall semester, when three weeks into classes, there were more than 600 active COVID-19 cases. 

'This is about preparing students for the rest of their lives'

Plowman's day typically begins around 4:30 a.m. Before COVID-19 moved so many things online, part of her job meant attending events, sometimes well after normal office hours.

Haslam said he continues to see in Plowman what he saw when they first met: a deep commitment to students. 

Chancellor Donde Plowman poses for a selfie with Smokey and the UT Cheerleaders before surprising West High School students with acceptance letters on Sept. 12, 2019.
Chancellor Donde Plowman poses for a selfie with Smokey and the UT Cheerleaders before surprising West High School students with acceptance letters on Sept. 12, 2019. Provided by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee

"She knew at the end of the day, it was all about the students," Haslam said. "While the alumni really matter and faculty are a key part of the equation and the state legislature needs to be understood, at the end of the day, this is about preparing students for the rest of their lives, and Donde gets that."

'To see her in this role, she's at her best here'

Plowman’s impact as a builder goes back to her time at Nebraska, where she was dean of the College of Business when she led the campaign that raised $84 million in private donations.

“That is a huge testament to her ability to tell a story and to empower people to build a great college, because not only did we build a building, we have a new department and we have many new programs,” Kathy Farrell, dean of the College of Business at Nebraska, told Knox News.

“She’s a builder, and that’s a really strong attribute,” said Kathy Farrell, the current dean of the College of Business at Nebraska. Donde Plowman was one of four candidates for chancellor at the University of Tennessee when she spoke in April 2019 at a public forum at the Student Union on the Knoxville campus.
“She’s a builder, and that’s a really strong attribute,” said Kathy Farrell, the current dean of the College of Business at Nebraska. Donde Plowman was one of four candidates for chancellor at the University of Tennessee when she spoke in April 2019 at a public forum at the Student Union on the Knoxville campus. Saul Young/News Sentinel

Farrell and Plowman worked together for nearly 10 years, in various positions at Nebraska.

“She’s a builder, and that’s a really strong attribute,” Farrell said.

Farrell was the associate dean of the College of Business under Plowman, and moved into the dean role when Plowman became the associate vice chancellor.

As Farrell was moving into Plowman’s old office, she found sticky notes all around the room that Plowman had left behind. Some were funny, like a reminder to check the mirror before walking out of the office, but others were serious.

One note, hidden in the desk drawer, said “If you ever need somebody to listen, don’t hesitate to call.”

“Things like that were just so thoughtful and you know it took her time,” Farrell said. “She didn’t have to do that, and it just meant the world to me that she took the time to do that.”

Amber Williams is the vice provost for student success at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Amber Williams is the vice provost for student success at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Provided by the University of Tennessee

Amber Williams, the vice provost for student success at UT, also worked with Plowman at Nebraska. Williams followed Plowman to UT in early 2020. 

"To see her in this role, and to see her progression over time, she's at her best here," Williams said. "She always says 'leadership is the willingness to act,' and I've seen her act, I've seen her transform, I've seen her cheer us on."

About that bat she chased down?

When they were still at Nebraska, Plowman and Williams' offices were in the oldest building on campus, and bats kept finding their way inside.

One day, when Plowman got back to her office, everyone was huddled in the hallway because a bat was in the offices.

Plowman decided to try to capture the bat herself.

“Everyone was screaming and just completely being ridiculous because there was this bat flying around,” Williams said. “And the chancellor’s like ‘I’m going to go in there and get that bat.’”

Close associates of Donde Plowman talk about the loyalty she engenders. Amber Williams, the vice provost for student success at UT, followed Plowman to UT in early 2020. "To see her in this role, and to see her progression over time, she's at her best here," Williams said. "She always says 'leadership is the willingness to act,' and I've seen her act, I've seen her transform, I've seen her cheer us on."
Close associates of Donde Plowman talk about the loyalty she engenders. Amber Williams, the vice provost for student success at UT, followed Plowman to UT in early 2020. "To see her in this role, and to see her progression over time, she's at her best here," Williams said. "She always says 'leadership is the willingness to act,' and I've seen her act, I've seen her transform, I've seen her cheer us on." Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

It was winter in Nebraska, so Plowman pulled up the hood on her coat. She went into her office, in business professional clothes, and advanced on the bat while everyone else screamed and ran away.

"I walked into the suite and looked into my office and saw the bat," Plowman said. "I swear, it was like the wingspan was two feet wide. I'm sure I'm exaggerating, but it looked like a prehistoric creature."

Once Plowman realized she couldn't capture the bat, she barricaded herself in a nearby office until she could get help. Williams said the story still makes her laugh, but it illustrates some of Plowman’s core principles.

“Everybody else was scared and ran away, but she came in,” Williams said. “Did she catch the bat? No. But that’s what I mean about her being present, and being able to take a challenge on, head on, and support the people around her as she does it.”

Monica Kast covers higher education in Tennessee
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