Boyd’s remarks highlight how UT and its partners are aiming to create a future where every Tennessean can thrive by tackling the state’s Grand Challenges. To do so, we are focusing initial efforts in three key areas:

  • Advancing K-12 education,
  • Strengthening rural communities, and
  • Overcoming addiction
Full Transcript

[Randy Boyd: Intro]

Randy Boyd here, president of the University of Tennessee System. Thank you for taking time to join us for the 2023 State of UT Address. I understand your time is valuable and, while you could be doing anything right now, you chose to join today to learn more about our vision for 2023 – thank you.

I believe a great mission lives somewhere between the probable and the impossible. The probable is something that you can do…but it’s not very exciting. For example, you know that if you come to work and do your job, you can achieve the probable mission.

If a mission is impossible, nobody believes it—and no one will buy into it.

If a mission lives somewhere between the probable and the impossible, it’s beyond what you can expect just doing what you normally do but…with a little innovation, imagination and determination, it just might be possible.

Tennessee has a great mission before us, and is facing seemingly impossible challenges around substance misuse, rural community decline and critical needs in K-12 education. We can only label these as grand challenges, as they are difficult problems that will need a sustained, multi-disciplinary solution. In fact, these solutions lie somewhere between the probable and the impossible. As we seek to untangle these problems, we know the ultimate outcome will benefit everyone in the state to lead more prosperous lives.

These challenges ignite chain reactions that significantly impact livelihoods and quality of life for Tennesseans across the state.

The University of Tennessee System, with its statewide presence, people, expertise, resources and influence, is uniquely positioned to tackle these grand challenges.

Substance Misuse (Monty Burks/Nashville and Jennifer Tourville/Knoxville)

[Jennifer Tourville:]

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-45. Substance use affects every Tennessean, even those that haven’t personally experienced addiction. Substance use negatively impacts many aspects of our society, it affects our healthcare system, criminal justice system, school system, the workforce, the environment…the list is lengthy.

While substance misuse is a heavy burden everywhere, it has been profoundly catastrophic for the eastern Appalachian areas of the state in particular. It has destroyed families, forced businesses to move or close, increased crime rates and overcrowded jails, burdened child protective services and foster care, and has resulted in numerous other destructive outcomes across the state.

The Substance Misuse and Addiction Resource for Tennessee, or SMART Initiative, was established to help reduce overdose deaths in Tennessee by partnering with communities to educating people; develop, initiate, and evaluate research-based programs; and secure additional federal funding for state and local initiatives.

There are a lot of moving parts to this complex challenge, and a community-specific approach will be paramount to the success of these efforts. After all, what works in one community may not work in another.

[Monty Burks:]

Addiction is a treatable disease. It is not a moral failing. And recovery is real…we do recover. I’m living proof that it might take a second or third chance to love someone in addiction back to life

Twenty-two years ago, my life was turned around when two women in my hometown church helped me get on the path to recovery – i was afraid to let people know i needed them. Twenty-two years ago, i was freed from that bondage. Today, i spend every waking hour advocating for people to find freedom from addiction and other life controlling issues, through the tennessee department of mental health and substace abuse services’s faith-based initiative.

Imagine if we all got on the same page and delivered the same message…don’t you think we could address the stigma around addiction and mental health and create a space for people to find help?

My goal is to work with every congregation, every school, and every volunteer across the state of tennessee to be educated on addiction and mental health and how we can all unify to build resources to help people who suffer!

Just one example of how we are doing our part to address this grand challenge is providing free community trainings in partnership with our local faith communites and colleges on addiction and mental health in order to build more relationships, friendships, and access to services!

Rural Community Decline (Rob Mathis/Cocke County and Kaley Walker/Roane Co./CTAS)

[Rob Mathis:]

Small town, rural communities are what makes Tennessee…well, Tennessee. Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville are all household names across our state, but rural Tennessee made these cities what they are. In strengthening rural Tennessee, we strengthen the economic, moral, civic and cultural foundations of our entire state.

[Kaley Walker:]

Access to broadband, for example, is a critical resource where rural Tennessee is woefully behind. In fact, approximately 37 percent of rural Tennesseans don’t have home access to high-speed broadband, and many can’t afford broadband services or the devices needed to use it.

The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture is actively working to increase internet access in our more economically-distressed counties through grant-funded efforts, which include partnerships with local libraries and elementary schools in six distressed counties to loan mobile hotspots free of charge.

[Rob Mathis:]

And, rural community decline is even deeply connected in many ways to substance misuse. Many of Tennessee’s rural communities experience stagnant economic growth, difficulty retaining and attracting talent and business, and budget struggles to fund infrastructure projects like sewer and water lines, roadways and yes…broadband connections.

K-12 Education (Commissioner Penny Schwinn/Nashville and Janet Hanvy/Pulaski)

[Janet Hanvy:]

In k-12 education, challenges such as attracting and retaining teachers and funding schools create overcrowded classrooms, hindering the individual educational experience that students need to thrive. For many rural students, exposure to opportunities and careers beyond what they see is a whole other obstacle they must overcome.

And, if we’re going to have an educated workforce, then we need high-quality, resource-infused education. It’s not a luxury…it’s a necessity. We need to teach kids how to think, design, draw, etc.

Tennessee ranks 31 in its quality of pre-k to 12 education. Further…on average there is 10.7 teacher positions reported vacant per school district. The state of our education is in dire need of help, and ensuring our students are successful starts with teaching.

[Commissioner Penny Schwinn:]

Through Tennessee’s Grow Your Own initiative, our state is leading the way to ensure Tennessee is the best place to become and remain a teacher.
Last year, Tennessee launched the first nationally approved teaching apprenticeship, becoming the first state to make it possible for teachers to truly become a teacher– for free.

Removing the cost barrier to becoming a teacher is nation-leading, ground-breaking work that has real-world implications and positive impacts on our classrooms.

Now, we are innovating even more.

The Tennessee Grow Your Own center is a new partnership with the UT System, that leverages a $20 million investment to help break down more barriers to the teaching profession — ensuring Tennessee’s supply of teachers is strong, growing, and sustainable for years to come.

Grow Your Own partnerships between higher education and local school districts across the state are ensuring there is more opportunity and innovative no-cost pathways for Tennesseans to enter and excel in the teaching profession…so that every school can have a pipeline of qualified teachers and school district professionals to serve all their students.

[Randy Boyd: Outro]

These grand challenges – substance misuse, rural community decline and K-12 education needs – require collaboration between the public and private sector, and among our own campuses, institutes and alumni. By harnessing the collective power of human relationships, research, science, technology and imagination…amazing things can – and will – be achieved.

UT is willing and ready to work on these grand challenges. With our five campuses and two institutes, the University of Tennessee System can uniquely collaborate with communities across the state to solve problems so future generations can thrive.

Will you join us? It will take experts from a myriad of areas working together to straighten what has been snarled.

While connecting as a university system and as Tennesseans, these grand challenges won’t be insurmountable. Solving them will lie somewhere between the probable and the impossible. With innovation, imagination and determination…I am confident we can get there.

And, we’ve already started! This spring, I’ll be announcing an effort to rally our troops together to help solve the state’s grand challenges and invest in ideas that have the potential of making Tennessee a better place. These “grand challenge collaboration grants” will be divided into each of our Grand Challenge areas: Substance Misuse, Rural Community Decline and K-12 Education. The greater the collaboration among our departments, colleges, campuses and institutes…the greater the potential to be awarded a grant! And, while ideas can come from ANYONE, proposed projects must have a clear connection to the UT System and its campuses and institutes. Stay tuned for more details about this exciting initiative.

I invite you to learn more about our grand challenges by visiting, or by scanning this QR Code with your mobile device.

Together, we will usher in a better tomorrow for all of Tennessee and make this the greatest decade – not just in the history of UT, but for all of Tennessee.

Creating a Future Where Every Tennessean Can Thrive
President’s Column →