Donde Plowman got her first taste of leadership in her college dormitory. As a resident assistant in McElvaney Hall at Southern Methodist University, Plowman received early lessons in managing relationships and mediating conflicts.
“I probably wouldn’t be a university chancellor if I hadn’t started as a resident advisor in a dorm, because that was the first opportunity I had to influence a group of people and help them find their way,” Plowman said. “It’s how I learned to conduct a meeting and solve a problem.”
Plowman, a business professor and the daughter of a Methodist minister, became the ninth chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, on July 1, 2019. Her appointment was approved unanimously by the UT Board of Trustees in May. This is her second tenure at UT. From 2007 to 2010 she served in the Haslam College of Business, first as a management professor and then as a department head.
“I’ve spent my entire career in public higher education,” Plowman said. “I love that commitment to education for everyone, because education levels the playing field for people in life. The land grant mission in particular appeals to me.”
She left Tennessee to become dean of the College of Business at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she raised $150 million, opened a new 240,000-square-foot building, and increased enrollment by 26 percent in her six years in the job. She became executive vice president and chief academic officer—Nebraska’s equivalent to a provost—in 2017. At each stop, she encountered new challenges that have stretched her leadership skills and prepared her for this moment, she said.
She gained the experience and developed the confidence to make the many small decisions that keep things running as a department head—which she calls “the hardest, most thankless job.” She also learned the value of developing distinctive programs that attract both donors and students. She took those lessons to Nebraska, where she started an honors academy and established the Clifton Strengths Institute, which helps high-achieving students discover their strengths and become leaders.
“I learned that high-quality programs, beyond just the high-quality classroom experiences, are really important,” she said.
At Nebraska, Plowman learned that people are attracted to big ideas and bold aspirations, as long as they’re thoughtful. “People would say to me, ‘Wow, I really love your energy,’” she said. “And I had never really thought about it before. It became my mantra. My energy is a resource I can bring every day, and it’s valuable and it doesn’t cost anything.
“When a leader brings a lot of positive energy, it just multiplies. And I’m bringing that back with me to Tennessee.”
Plowman’s early life was spent on the move every four years as her father, a minister, rotated through assignments from the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference. When asked, Plowman points to her father as her single greatest influence. He was a World War II veteran who had been stationed in England before he met his wife, Trudy, and answered a call to the ministry. He would later run for US Congress.
“He was a leader in his world, and he was a preacher so he could speak eloquently, and he could speak truth to power in a way that was really acceptable,” she said. “My dad was like that—he was very forthright, but in a way that always communicates how much you care about the person. When you deliver feedback that might be hard to hear, you deliver it a way that the person walks away thinking, ‘Wow, thank you.’ He was really good at that.”
It’s a skill Plowman says she’s working to emulate, and she hopes she can help foster that same candor across the university. To be a Volunteer, she said, is to have the willingness to serve and the courage to act. “I want every UT student to develop the confidence to step forward, show an act of kindness or an act of courage, and to make a difference,” she said.
“That’s something I think is hugely important in our society and in our country right now, and it’s what Tennessee graduates should be known for.”
Q&A with Chancellor Plowman
Q. What do you miss about teaching?
A. I miss the instant contact you have with students. You develop relationships, and I think administrators need to continue to find that way to connect with students. Because if you don’t, you can get really removed from what it is, the central mission that the university is all about. I’m going to be looking for ways to connect, opportunities, invitations—so spread the word.
Q. What does the Volunteer spirit mean to you?
A. Tennessee has such a rich history around that spirit, around the idea of stepping forth and saying, “I’ll go.” So, to me, it’s about committing to something important, something that’s more than just getting an A on the test or more than just publishing your research but to leave a mark on your community and using your talents to make things better for others. I love that.
Q. What do you listen to?
A. In the mornings I like hymns and instrumentals. I like listening to all the sort of classic rock stations, the stations of my era. James Taylor and Simon & Garfunkel. I also like country music. Vince Gill is a big favorite of mine.
Q. What are you reading?
A. Well, I’m always reading maybe three types of books at one time. So, I’m somebody that’s got several things going at once. I just finished a memoir that was written by a former graduate student at Nebraska called The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It’s going to be made into a movie. And lately I’ve been on this kick of Brenè Brown, who writes books on leadership. I loved Daring Leadership.
Q. What do you love about Knoxville?
A. There’s something about the lush green surroundings of Knoxville landscapes that just brings a sense of peace and beauty. We’ve bought a home that has that feeling in the backyard. I have a screened-in porch, which I’ve never had in my life. But if you live in Knoxville, you’ve got to have a screened-in porch. I look forward to sitting out there and just, you know, taking in the beautiful surroundings.