2019 President’s Awards

Category: Features

Five outstanding UT employees were honored with President’s Awards at a luncheon on March 14 in Nashville. President’s Awards are the highest honor a UT employee can receive from the University and are intended to spotlight success and inspire excellence. This program recognizes the extraordinary contributions of staff and faculty in the University’s three-fold mission to provide education, conduct research and offer outreach. The Support Award honors those faculty and staff whose efforts fulfill this mission. For the first year, the Diversity Award recognizes the effort of a faculty or staff member in support of the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence.

“It has been a pleasure to meet and work with such outstanding employees. Our University would not be where it is today if it weren’t for their hard work and dedication. I feel honored to present them with their well-deserved awards,” UT Interim President Randy Boyd said. 

Honorees are selected each year from a system-wide pool of candidates nominated by campus and institute leaders. Each faculty and staff winner receives a commemorative plaque and a cash award of $3,000.


Rapinder “Rupy” Sawhney, UT Knoxville professor in industrial and systems engineering. Sawhney was honored for significantly impacting the educational experiences of students of all levels.

“Dr. Sawhney personifies the complete academician, demonstrating the best of interdisciplinary research, teaching and mentoring to students at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels,” Wayne Davis, UT Knoxville chancellor, wrote in his nomination letter.

Sawhney is also the executive director for the Center for Advanced System Research and Education (CASRE) and a Heath Fellow in Business and Engineering. 

Educate Nominees

  • Macel Ely II, Institute for Public Service, Director of the Naifeh Center for Effective Leadership (NCEL)
  • Hunter Holzhauer, UT Chattanooga, UC Foundation Associate Professor, Finance and Economics 
  • Richard Robinson, UT Martin, Associate Professor, Communications 
  • Lawrence E. Steckel, UT Institute of Agriculture, Associate Professor, Plant Sciences 
  • Anne H. Zachry, UT Health Science Center, Assistant Professor and Department Chair, Occupational Therapy, College of Health Professions 


Dr. Karen Johnson, UT Health Science Center College of Medicine endowed professor of women’s health. Johnson has made significant scientific contributions to the understanding of and interventions for hypertension and post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy.

“Her work brings positive recognition to UTHSC and the University of Tennessee. As important, Dr. Johnson’s work has far-reaching impact, both nationally and internationally,” wrote Steve Schwab, UT Health Science Center chancellor, in his recommendation letter.

Johnson also serves as co-director of the Tennessee Clinical and Translational Science Institute, co-chair of the UTHSC Clinical Trial Governance Board and one of the multi-primary investigators on the Clinical and Translational Science Award NIH Application. 

Discover Nominees

  • Warren Peter Nevad, UT Institute for Public Service, Municipal Management Consultant, Municipal Technical Advisory Service 
  • Timothy Gardner Rials, UT Institute of Agriculture, Professor and Associate Dean/Director, Center for Renewable Carbon 
  • John Swanson, UT Chattanooga, Associate Professor, History Department


Sarah Hillyer, director of the Center for Sport, Peace and Society in the UT Knoxville College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. Hillyer is one of the world’s foremost experts in the use of sport for community development, peace building, disability inclusion and gender equity. 

“Sarah Hillyer strongly represents the ideal balance of accomplished researcher and leader who is taking her academic findings and implementing them in the field every day,” wrote Wayne Davis, chancellor of UT Knoxville, in nominating her.

Hillyer also helped launch the VOLeaders Academy, a year-long leadership program for student athletes that includes academics year coursework and a summer
study-abroad and cultural immersion experience.

Connect Nominees

  • Bradford (Brad) Paul Collett, UT Institute of Agriculture, Associate Professor, Plant Sciences 
  • Zibin Guo, UT Chattanooga, UC Foundation Professor, Department of Social, Cultural and Justice Studies
  • Paul Lebron Middlebrooks, UT Institute for Public Service, Program Manager, UT Center for Industrial Services
  • Clinton Smith, UT Martin, Associate Professor of Special Education, Department of Educational Studies 
  • Orpheus Triplett, UT Health Science Center, Associate Professor and Program Director of Head Start Outreach, Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health, College of Dentistry


Kathy Gibbs, assistant vice chancellor for student academic support services and inclusion. Gibbs has profoundly impacted almost every student at the UT Health Science Center. 

“Her work has increased retention and the quality of life for so many students,” wrote Steve Schwab, UT Health Science Center chancellor, in his nomination letter. Ms. Gibbs is an asset to UTHSC and is an example of what is best about the University of Tennessee. Gibbs is also the creator of the #TakeCare campaign, which focused on normalizing self-care and removing any barriers of stigma for students. 

Support Nominees 

  • Michelle Renee Buckner, UT Institute for Public Service, Administrative Specialist, Municipal Technical Advisory Service
  • Justin Crowe, UT Institute of Agriculture, Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development/Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication 
  • Laurie Melnik, UT Chattanooga, Executive Director, Southeast Center for Education in the Arts 


Valerie Rutledge, dean of the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies at UT Chattanooga. Rutledge embraces diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the University. Through UT Chattanooga’s Grow Your Own program, she is able to attract, recruit and retain women, specifically women of color. 

“Valerie has created one of the most diverse group of faculty compared to other units. She is a leader within her college and deserves this recognition,” wrote Yancy Freeman, vice chancellor for enrollment management, student affairs and student success. 

Diversity Nominees

  • Michael Alston, UT Health Science Center, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Title IX Coordinator, Office of Equity and Diversity, Academic, Faculty and Student Affairs 
  • Joseph Lee Griffy, UT Institute of Agriculture, Extension Agent and County Director, UT Extension Stewart County 
  • Tyvi T. Small, UT Knoxville, Interim Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement

To learn more about the President’s Award program, visit president.tennessee.edu/awards.