The University of Tennessee-Knoxville remained at No. 46 among America's top public institutions, according to the 2013 U.S. News and World Report's undergraduate rankings released Wednesday.
UT did not advance a single spot, despite the ongoing push to crack the Top 25. When the lists of public and private universities are combined, UT ranks 101st, again the same as last year.
"It's a little disappointing that we can't move up," said Rheagan Sexton, a UT junior. "I'm glad we didn't move down on the spectrum, but it is really disappointing that nothing has changed."
In 2010, UT embarked on the challenge to become a Top 25 university within a decade. The initiative includes efforts to make strides in recruiting and retaining students, hiring high-quality faculty and staff, and strengthening research and scholarship.
"I was pleased we stayed the same. I had hoped that we would move forward, but if you look at the 46 - last year there were 10 schools in the 46 number," said UTK Chancellor Jimmy Cheek. "This year, there are only five, and six of those schools that were in there last year actually declined. And so really, as you look at it, that band became much more narrow - only five schools in the top 46, and that will probably become more narrow next year, and our hope is that we can move forward next year."
Cheek has led the effort and, this past summer, received a more than $22,000 raise, which UT President Joe DiPietro said at the time was partly due to Chancellor Cheek's efforts toward reaching that Top 25 goal.
The chancellor, however, was strongly criticized as the raise came at the same time the trustees approved an 8 percent tuition increase for students, following a 12 percent increase the year before.
An online petition asking Cheek to decline the raise garnered more than 2,000 signatures.
"I think we've done everything we can do, everything we should do, everything we could do under the circumstances we found ourselves. We attacked this Top 25 goal in the worst financial situation we've ever had at this university or in this country since the Great Depression, so when you take on a goal when the resource base is shrinking, and you have fewer faculty and more students, that's a real difficult thing to do, and the progress we have made, as people look at that, will look at it and say, you've made significant progress," Cheek said.
The chancellor said there are two major sticking points for UT. One, the graduation rate, which has risen from 60 percent to 63 percent and is expected to rise to 66 percent for the next rankings. The other is the school's reputation, which is judged by outside people.
But Cheek also points out that UT has made other improvements which U.S. News and World Report does not factor in when compiling the rankings. Those include capital improvements on campus as well as better students support.
"When we show them what we've done, they will look at it and say, this is amazing progress for a two-year period," Cheek said. "We have been in this process for two years. We know it's a decade-long process, and to move us from 52 to 46 has been a major step forward. Those next steps are going to be more difficult though to move forward, but we believe that we're on the right path, that we're making the right progress, and that we will become a Top 25 at the end of ten years."
Last year, UT tied with nine other universities in the rankings. This year, UT tied with four: Iowa State University, the University of California-Riverside, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Oklahoma.
Areas where UT has improved in U.S. News' ranking criteria since last year include the overall graduation rate, reduced class sizes, more faculty resources and financial resources, and the percentage of college freshmen who are in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes.
"It's not so much the number that I think is a big deal. I know a lot of things are changing, so I just feel like they haven't taken an effect yet, but once they do, I definitely feel like we'll move upward," said Matthew Wilhaucks, a UT sophomore. "We're headed in the right direction."