Full Circle

Produced June 18, 2019 | Updated: July 01, 2019

Rising from a first-generation college student to serve as UT’s interim chancellor, Wayne Davis believes in helping others reach their full potential.

On a cloudy day in November 2018, UT hosted its first campuswide celebration of first-generation students. There was hot chocolate, open houses, and a specially designed logo plastered to T-shirts and lapel pins.

It was a full-circle moment for Wayne Davis.

He had been a first-generation student himself, and began saving for college when he was 14 years old earning three cents per delivery on his paper route in Orange County, North Carolina.

He graduated from Pfieffer College and earned a master’s degree in physics from Clemson University before arriving at UT in 1971 as a doctoral student.

Now he was the interim chancellor of the flagship public university where he had spent his career working to ensure that students across Tennessee had access to the same opportunity higher education had given him.

“To be involved in the first-gen celebration was really special,” Davis said. “These are fun events, but first-gen students really do have unique challenges, and we still have work to do.”

These are the challenges Davis likes to take head on. It’s why he said yes when then UT System President Joe DiPietro asked him to be interim chancellor just six weeks before Davis was set to retire.

“I had a short amount of time to make a decision, and it’s a big responsibility. I talked to Sylvia, and we decided we could do this,” Davis said, referring to his wife of nearly 50 years. “How do you say no when you’re asked to come and lead the university you love?”

After 47 years in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering—as a graduate student, tenured faculty member, associate dean, and dean—Davis had developed an unflinching dedication to his alma mater. Of course he said yes.

When he stepped into the role in May 2018, the campus was in the midst of an unexpected leadership transition and in need of a steadying hand. At the same time, UT had just set records in research, enrollment, and development.

“Almost everything we use to measure the success of the university was—and still is—at an all-time high,” Davis said.

With that in mind, and just two days’ notice, he came to the office with two goals: to ensure that UT’s momentum didn’t stall and to prepare the campus for its next chancellor. Surrounded by a talented team of administrators, many of whom he’d served with before, Davis immediately set to work.

The recently hired provost was still committed to joining the university, and within six months, Davis hired a new vice chancellor for communications and interim vice chancellor for diversity and engagement.

“The vice chancellor for diversity and engagement was something everybody wanted, and for us to make progress on that with support from the new system president, Randy Boyd, was crucial,” Davis said “It was such a critical office for the University of Tennessee, and we had gone without it for several years.”

He joined ribbon cuttings for the Ken and Blaire Mossman Building and Phase II of the Student Union. He participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the new engineering complex he had helped shepherd as dean.

The university announced in the spring that Join the Journey, the most ambitious fundraising campaign in its history, had hit its $1.1 billion goal two years early, thanks to gifts from more than 100,000 individual donors.

During Davis’s tenure, UT welcomed its largest freshman class since the early 1980s and set a record for applications to the university. Graduation and retention rates hit their highest values ever. UT was named a high-producing institution for Fulbright Scholars for the first time and celebrated its eighth Rhodes Scholar—achievements driven in part by of the rapid rise in students engaging in research.

Last year, nearly 4,000 students participated in undergraduate research, about 15 percent of the overall student body. That’s up from 400 students just four years ago.

“Having been a first-generation student who was a work-study student in the physics labs at my undergraduate alma mater, that research experience helped me tremendously,” Davis said, before pointing to internal numbers that show first-generation students have the lowest retention rates of any group on campus. “If we can help more first-generation students get involved in undergraduate research, then we can help them in two ways: earning a paycheck they likely need and getting engaged in a meaningful way on our campus.”

Davis, with his engineering background, loves solving problems. As a lifelong teacher, researcher, and now administrator, he likes helping others figure out how to solve them. He helped the Pride of the Southland Band get a new practice field and is working with the Forensic Anthropology Center to expand its facilities.

“I enjoy that aspect of leadership: being able to facilitate change and helping others make these decisions and figure out the best path forward,” he said.

Even when he’s leading the effort, Davis is quick to point out that the victories belong to everyone. UT’s record year has been the product of collaboration and buy-in across campus, he said—and he’s proud to be part of the team.

Wayne Davis plays his guitar
Davis looks forward to playing his guitar more often.

Davis has been the ultimate Volunteer, willing to delay his retirement after more than four and a half decades of service to take on one more role for the university he loves. But he insists that he got at least as much out of the job as he put in, and that the experience has been among the most rewarding of his life.

“I met a lot of people I had never worked with before from all across the university, and people I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise,” he said.

He and Sylvia attended dinners with campus leaders and alumni, watched shows at the Clarence Brown Theatre, and cheered on student–athletes at games and tournaments.

“I have a better appreciation of the breadth and importance of the overall team of people working so hard to make sure everything works,” he said. “From the Faculty Senate to Student Life to Facilities Services, I know so much more about all phases of the university.”

As his time at UT comes to an end, Davis said he’s ready to move on from this role. He plans to make more time for gardening, hiking, and traveling. He will see his grandkids more. But he will also remain connected to the university—attending events, cheering on the Vols, and working with development, especially for the Tickle College of Engineering.

“We live in the area, and we plan to stay engaged here for a long time to come.”

Wayne Davis served as interim chancellor from May 2018 to June 2019.

This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary celebration. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.