Meet Robert Kelchen

by Alyssa Seisser
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Many of us associate the term “influencer” with someone with a large following on social media, such as Instagram or Facebook, who sets trends or promotes products. But did you know that there is a select group of scholar influencers who help shape educational practice and policy?

One of those is Robert Kelchen, head of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (ELPS). Kelchen was recently ranked 24 out of 200 in Education Week’s Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings for 2023. In fact, Kelchen is the only scholar from UT to make the list.

Find out more about Kelchen and his advice for those just starting their careers as educators.

Why did you choose a career in higher education?

RK: I chose a career in higher education because I was passionate about doing work that helped improve the quality of education for students. Working as a faculty member gives me the opportunity to help shape the field through my research and through teaching the next generation of leaders and researchers in higher education.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

RK: I enjoy that no two days are ever the same—and that few days end up going as I expected them to unfold when I woke up in the morning. Nearly every day involves something exciting, such as an opportunity to support my students and faculty, talking with a reporter, or a new research possibility.

What makes CEHHS special?

RK: I came to UT in the fall of 2021, and I chose to leave a tenured position elsewhere to join the college because of its commitment to the university’s landgrant mission. Our college gets involved in improving the lives of Tennesseans on a daily basis, and I am happy to play my small part in that process. I also greatly appreciate the camaraderie among my fellow department heads in the college as we seek to do our jobs as well as possible.

What are some of the challenges facing higher education today?

RK: I get asked this question a lot by policymakers, education leaders, and journalists. Higher education as a whole is facing declining enrollment, growing skepticism of the value of a college education, and a tricky financial picture as operating costs rise much faster than revenue. Each of this is a major challenge, and all of them happening at once keeps college leaders up at night.

What are some of the opportunities in higher education?

RK: Higher education has a reputation for not moving very quickly in response to challenges, but that is no longer the case. The ability of colleges to pivot to online classes during the pandemic was an example of the ingenuity and determination of our field to make things happen. This experience also gives us a lot more flexibility in offering classes to students in online, hybrid, and other flexible formats. It’s our job to meet students where they are, and that is an incredible opportunity going forward.

You appear regularly in news articles in both local and national publications, how many times are you quoted in a typical year?

RK: Talking with journalists is one of the favorite parts of my job, as I get to keep up on the latest developments in higher education and help share important information with a broader audience. I do between 200 and 300 interviews in a typical year, with some of them to help provide background information for reporters and some of them with reporters who are looking for a quote from an expert to round out their work. So I end up with 100 to 200 quoted pieces each year depending on what is in the news at that time.

What do you like to do for fun?

RK: I enjoy running, gardening, baking, and finding out what tastes good when cooked in a smoker. Basically, I like things that get me away from the computer screens and doing something active.

What advice do you have for faculty just starting their careers?

RK: My biggest piece of advice is to set a few key goals for five years down the road and stick to them. Faculty life comes with an incredible set of opportunities, but not all of them will help you meet those goals. For those on the tenure track, it’s critical to be seen as one of the leading experts in the field before going up for tenure. Get some mentors who will help you stay on that path.

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