When Michelle Deardorff was hired in 2013 as head of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Political Science and Public Service, she came at a pivotal time.
Most of the department’s faculty were hired between 1966 and 1972. And stayed. That meant Deardorff arrived as a large wave of professors were nearing retirement. And they did. In the seven years since she arrived, the department has seen a 79 percent turnover due to retirement. Only four original faculty members remain today.
From almost completely replacing the faculty and revisiting the curriculum to raising funds and relocating from Fletcher Hall to Pfeiffer Hall, the department of today hardly resembles the one from 10 years ago. Understanding the unique challenges she would face with her new position, Deardorff came to UTC with a clear vision of what the department could be.
“We wanted to have a department that the students saw themselves in and that students were much more engaged in,” she says. “We wanted a department where active learning was done not just in some classrooms, but in all classrooms. We wanted to get more students out traveling abroad, more students engaged in and taking ownership of their own research, and more students doing internships.”
She also had some lofty goals for building a diverse faculty with different interests, methodological bents and career goals, “but who all shared a love of teaching, a passion for their research and a desire to be engaged in their communities.” To date, Deardorff has achieved all those goals and more. Although such drastic changes could have negatively affected student retention, the numbers have not suffered.
“Sure, we lost some individual students along the way, but the department, collectively, has grown and has grown stronger. We have a strong reputation in the community and on campus,” Deardorff says.
Beyond the transformations of her own department, Deardorff has seen other major changes at UTC. Sure, there was a major beautification of campus, physically, but there were below-the-surface changes, as well.
Early in the decade, UTC was among institutions across the country experiencing numerous changes in higher education public policy and public funding structure.
“The institution responded to over 20 years of external pressures in five,” Deardorff says. “We had to be nimble and that was understandably painful. I think now we’re in a position where all of those good things that initially protected us from those outside factors are now strengths again, and we’re better-positioned to navigate whatever is going to come next.”
In today’s society, there also are many other factors redefining higher education and the college experience. “Students’ expectations are very different,” she says. “They don’t expect to go to college and bond together, suffering in cold dorms with cruddy food.”
Now, with students’ expectations higher than ever for the entire campus experience, it’s the University’s job to enhance both students’ education and their lives outside the classroom. An increase of non-traditional students on campus also means the University’s student demographics are changing. “More non-traditional students who previously would have never had a chance to have a residential or university experience now have the opportunity, which is exciting,” Deardorff explains, “but it means the classroom is different because we have to think about a much wider variety of students and how we’re going to meet their needs.
“Because of that, we don’t just have one path, we have lots of room for people to do very different kinds of things and we value them all,” she says.