October 20, 2023 8:00am

UT Developments

Survey respondents were predominantly supportive of UT’s enrollment goals and approving of using public-private partnerships for campus projects.

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Knoxville, TN Correspondent
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Rocky Top is changing. Enrollment at the University of Tennessee flagship campus in Knoxville has soared to record levels, and university leaders want to push it even higher. They’re also using a new (for UT) method of financing construction projects and preparing to create an on-campus entertainment district.

Some of the most important Big Orange traditions remain the same, of course. The Torchbearer still lights the way on campus, the Rock still serves as an ever-changing host for free expression and the Vols still play Alabama on the third Saturday in October. In this month’s Power Poll, we asked members their thoughts on the changes at UT-Knoxville and one burning question about a Volunteer tradition.

Enrollment at UT-Knoxville topped 36,000 for the first time this academic year, and UT System President Randy Boyd has said the goal is to reach 41,000 by the end of the decade. While that’s far behind Southeastern Conference leader Texas A&M University, which has roughly 75,000 students, it’s solidly in the upper half of the SEC.

Boyd said at last week’s Board of Trustees meeting that the growth is necessary to provide Tennessee with talented graduates to meet the demands of the state’s employers in the coming years.

A majority of Power Poll members, 56 percent, said the growth goal is about right for UT-Knoxville, though nearly one-third characterized the goal as being too ambitious. Only 1 percent said it wasn’t ambitious enough.

Part of UT-Knoxville’s growth is anticipated to come from an increased number of high-achieving in-state students. Beginning next fall, the university will guarantee spots for every Tennessee high school senior who ranks in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. That should yield an additional 250 or so in-state freshmen in a class that will likely be close to 7,000 strong. About two-thirds of UT-Knoxville undergraduate students are from Tennessee.

An overwhelming majority of Power Poll members — 78 percent — said the mix of in-state and out-of-state students is about right. One in 10 said UT-Knoxville admits too many out-of-state students, while 8 percent said the in-state share is too high.

Enrolling more students, especially larger freshman classes, means more housing is needed. UT-Knoxville has about 8,300 beds for students living on campus, and has plans to add another 1,920 by the beginning of the fall 2025 semester. Those new beds will be in two new residential complexes valued at $240.4 million to be built through a public-private partnership. A ground lease will enable a private developer to build and own the residence halls, though UT will retain ownership of the land.

The project marks the first time a public-private partnership will be used for a higher education residential development in Tennessee. The State Building Commission and the UT Board of Trustees have signed off on the deal.

Seventy-two percent of Power Poll respondents approved of the approach — 40 percent strongly agreed and 32 percent somewhat agreed. Nearly one in four didn’t approve, with 14 percent somewhat disagreeing and 9 percent registering strong disagreement.

UT is also looking at establishing an entertainment district outside the south end of Neyland Stadium. The Athletic Department has put out a call for developers interested in building a mixed-use entertainment district anchored by a 12-story hotel with views of the Tennessee River. Like the residence halls, the entertainment district would be a public-private partnership, which would allow restaurants in the privately-owned buildings to serve alcohol — a practice that’s only allowed in limited circumstances in university-owned facilities.

A little more than half the Power Poll respondents either strongly (25 percent) or somewhat (27 percent) agreed with the decision. One-third somewhat (17 percent) or strongly (16 percent) disagreed, while 15 percent were unsure.

Tradition hasn’t been forgotten in Big Orange Country, however. Tomorrow is the third Saturday in October, which can only mean the annual Tennessee-Alabama football game, one of the SEC’s most storied rivalries. Last year, UT snapped a 15-game losing streak to ’Bama in Neyland Stadium; this year’s contest will be held in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

We asked Power Poll members to put on their prognosticator hats for the game. A majority expects a close game, with 39 percent predicting the Vols will win by less than 10 points and 29 percent favoring the Crimson Tide by less than 10. Of those who think the game won’t be so close, most picked Alabama — 15 percent said the Tide would win by 10 or more points, while only 3 percent thought UT would win by double digits. Thirteen percent rated the game a tossup (or perhaps don’t follow football closely enough to have an opinion).

One thing is certain and needs no survey question to predict — after the game, the winning team and its fans will light up the traditional victory cigars.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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