A blue-ribbon panel is being created to examine whether Volunteer athletics should continue reporting to the University of Tennessee system or shift to the Knoxville campus.
"It's a complicated question, and I need advice," said Jan Simek, interim system president. "Because it's not clear where it should report."
Simek said there are pros and cons to both structures.
"The Volunteers ... are from UT-Knoxville," he told the News Sentinel's editorial board Monday. "Clearly they are the students of the Knoxville campus."
The evaluating group will be composed of people from the Knoxville campus as well as people in the UT system.
In the current structure, the athletic department, which is self-funded, voluntarily gives money to the Knoxville campus - $10 million this year.
"In times of difficulty, in many places around the country, athletic departments look to the academic programs to sustain them," he said. "Right now we're structurally organized not to be there. That's the advantage of system-level organization - that firewall between academics and athletics."
Overall, Simek said, the UT system is "in good shape," but challenges are numerous.
After stimulus funding expires in two years, the system faces a $66 million shortfall in state appropriations, which will make the university "a different place."
Classes will be bigger and fewer, and students will have to be more focused on their four-year plans, he said.
"One of the great losses here, I'm afraid, will be a student's ability to explore while they're in university," Simek said. "One of the great things about a university is that students have in front of them an array of classes that they've never been offered before, and the ability to shop around and explore their own intellect. That's going to have to be curtailed a little bit."
Improving graduation and retention rates also are high on the priority list, he said. UT-Knoxville's six-year graduation rate is 60 percent - the highest in the state among other public four-year colleges.
"Sixty is not good enough for what (UT) Knoxville wants to be," Simek said.
Among other challenges Simek is tackling during his interim role are clearing up perceptions and clarifying the relationship between the UT system and campuses.
Public perception - as well as perception at other UT campuses - is that there is no clear distinction between the five-campus, 47,000-student system and the Knoxville campus, he said.
Earlier this month, Simek announced plans to move the system office from Andy Holt Tower, and the system is eyeing the downtown UT Conference Center as a possibility.
"There's a lot of symbolic behavior going on here, and people reacting to perceived relationships and structures that need to be clarified, because they actually inhibit progress on a whole variety of dimensions," Simek said. "It's always been the case that there's a tension between the Knoxville campus and the system that I think inheres from the fact that the system is on the Knoxville campus and physically located above the campus administration. The message: There is not autonomy."
Chloe White may be reached at 865-342-6341.