UT Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek Is Planning His New Wardrobe—and Goals—for Big Orange Country
Jimmy G. Cheek, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s new chancellor, won’t have to toss all of his orange ties, but he may want to let Goodwill have any that are stained with Gator blue. On February 1, Cheek arrives in Knoxville from Gainesville after a 33-year career at the University of Florida.
He’s been serving as the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources since 2005. From 1999 to 2004, he was dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences; and from 1992 to 1999, he was assistant dean of the college.
Cheek joined the Florida faculty in 1975 shortly after earning his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University.
A native Texan, Cheek also has a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M and a master’s degree from Lamar University, in Beaumont, Texas.
Cheek, the first member of his family to attend college, has had a lifelong affection for learning. Three of his high school teachers—in chemistry, agriculture, and sociology—set him on a career path in education. Those three teachers, he says, taught him “how to be successful in life, how to set high goals, and how to achieve them.”
Proving that he was a quick learner, he was selected as the outstanding freshman in his college his first year at Texas A&M.
Those same lessons have helped shape an outstanding career at Florida. Much of Cheek’s research—he has over 80 publications to his name—has focused on education and learning. He has received numerous awards, including Teacher of the Year for the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. In 2006, he endowed an award for outstanding graduate students in the college.
That same love of education will serve him well at UT Knoxville. From his experiences at land-grant institutions, he knows the value of education, outreach, and service to the state. “I look forward to this new chapter of my life and this wonderful opportunity to serve the people of Tennessee,” he says.
He also knows what it’s like to run a university during economically lean times. His last year at Florida, he had to manage a 10-percent funding cut but still met his operating obligations and maintained a balanced budget.
As UT Knoxville’s chancellor, he intends to “focus on the university with an aggressive strategic agenda.” While recognizing that he does not know everything that such an agenda should include, he suggests that enhancing educational programs, faculty research and scholarship portfolios, facilities and infrastructure, and collaboration with governmental and private institutions while continuing to attract and retain top faculty and students are all likely to be on the agenda.
Admittedly, this is a daunting list and, of course, will require mobilizing the resources to fund it, but such a list is doable, Cheek insists: “This is one of the best public institutions in America and it has a bright academic future.”
It won’t be all work for the new chancellor, however. He and his wife, Ileen, have a mountain hideaway in north Georgia where they like to go to relax. The Appalachian Trail is nearby, and while Cheek says he has no ambition to someday head north on a five-month trek to Mt. Katahdin, he hopes to spend some serious time logging miles in the Georgia mountains.
He and Ileen are enthusiastic travelers and especially like to visit the national parks. With the Great Smokies now practically next door, Cheek expects to become acquainted with that park’s trails as well.
Other hobbies include gardening and playing with his granddaughter, Abigail, who is becoming a traveler herself now that she has reached toddlerhood.
Cheek is also a huge basketball and football fan and has spent three decades cheering against UT. Still, he says, “I’m excited about the opportunity to see Pat Summitt and Bruce Pearl in action. And while I didn’t really expect Urban Meyer to be moving to Knoxville, I’m looking forward to spring practice to see what’s in store for the Vols next fall.”
“Shifting allegiance from the Gators to the Vols will be tough,” Cheek admits, “but my blood is already half orange.”