Yancy Freeman

The pathway for Dr. Yancy Freeman Sr. from modest beginnings to becoming the 12th chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Martin is paved with promoting educational possibilities and advocating for those living in difficult situations.

Freeman began his tenure as UT Martin’s chancellor on Aug. 9, most recently serving as the vice chancellor of enrollment management and student affairs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but his connection to that campus and the University of Tennessee System goes much deeper than that.

Freeman is the sixth of eight children, having grown up in a public housing neighborhood in Memphis and graduating from Central High School. Before he even attended college, he knew he wanted to find a job that helps others.

“I thought I wanted to work for a nonprofit,” he said. “I grew up in a public housing facility in Memphis, one of those housing projects in Memphis,” he said. “It was a very poor neighborhood, so that kind of started my aspiration to say, ‘I want to work for the housing authority to improve conditions for families who live in public housing’ or ‘I want to do something like United Way, raising funds and extending help to families who need it.’”

Freeman went to UT Chattanooga as a first-generation college student. He originally wanted to study engineering, but found that he preferred an occupation that worked with people more. 

He earned a bachelor’s degree from UT Chattanooga in political science and considered going to law school to become a public advocate.

“I knew I wanted to do work that would be connected to people and work with people, but I was not completely sure,” he said. “In fact, in my junior and senior years at college, I did a program called the Tennessee Pre-Professional Program, and it guaranteed admission into the law school at the University of Memphis and the UT College of Law, so I could have gone to those.

“I did both summers of that and decided that I would take the master’s degree route instead of going to law school. Once I finished undergrad, I started the master’s of public administration program.”

Freeman said he had a friend who suggested getting a master’s degree in public administration and he said that once he got into it, “It just came naturally to me.”

However, it would take him a while to complete that degree because of a job he was given by UT Chattanooga in a position that would change his career pathway, steering him toward university administration.

“I was recruiting students in the West Tennessee area to go to school at UTC,” he said. “That was my very first job.

“I couldn’t really take classes in the fall because it was such a hectic recruiting schedule, and it was all the way across the state. At that time, there weren’t online classes where they allowed you to join in. You had to be there in class face-to-face, so it took me about 5½ years to finish the master’s program.”

That would not only give Freeman a familiarity with West Tennessee, but it would also mark the beginning of an academic recruitment vocation that would bring him back to UT Chattanooga and, eventually, to UT Martin.

“I’ve been joking with folks to say my landmarks in northwest Tennessee are high schools,” he laughed. “If I can get to a high school, I kind of know what’s around it, so I do have some familiarity with the area.

“My wife and I started dating before she graduated from Martin, so I had come and visited her here a couple of times, so that brought a familiarity with the area.”

Freeman said he developed a love for recruiting and working with the admissions process.

“It is what I really like to do because I see it as a pathway for folks; it’s a beginning pathway for folks to be able to transform their lives,” he said. “What higher ed has done for me is just phenomenal. I said that I grew up in a public housing project in Memphis. Never, ever, ever should I be sitting in this seat (in the chancellor’s office). If it were not for higher ed and the opportunities that higher ed provides, I wouldn’t be.

“In a lot of ways, it saved my life, so for me, I see this as a very purposeful way of giving back to students, to staff, to faculty, to the community. It’s my way of giving back, so I get energized by it – folks have to forgive me, because I really do. I really get energized by helping students and now, on a broader spectrum, even faculty, helping them to facilitate the outstanding work that they do.”

Freeman completed his master’s degree in 1998 – graduating just three days before his son, Yancy Jr., was born. 

Freeman was hired for a position at Baylor School, a private secondary school in Chattanooga, where he would work with recruiting and boarding admissions for two years.

“Then, I came back to UTC in 1999 because the associate director of admissions position was available,” he said. “So, I had gone from admissions counselor to associate director of admissions at Baylor and then, back to higher ed as associate director of admissions at UTC.”

Freeman was promoted to vice chancellor for enrollment management and student success at UTC in December 2017. 

In that position, he oversaw the operations of admissions, financial aid and the registrar’s office as well as advising and other student success programs like tutoring and supplemental instruction.

In June 2018, the UTC vice chancellor for student affairs left that position, and Freeman took the position on an interim basis. He would eventually earn that position, changing his title to vice chancellor of enrollment management and student affairs.

Freeman said wanting to give back to others has always been a part of him.

“It’s always been a part of my DNA,” he said. “It’s always been a part of the core of who I am.”

He added that being a first-generation college student has given him a perspective on bringing students with similar backgrounds to campus.

“It’s about access for me,” he said. “It is giving students who might not possibly think that they could be here and, excelling and doing well, the chance to see themselves here.

“If I can’t do anything else, sharing and talking about my story and sharing and talking about ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ That’s the most powerful message that I can give. I care really hard, I care about people a lot, and I will work really hard. Those combinations have always worked for me. If you have those two things, everything else is going to come as a result of that.”

Freeman said that being back where his wife went to college as the chancellor of that university is meaningful.

“I am thrilled to be in this community,” he said. “I am overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the people who are in this community and the welcome that I have received coming into this community.

“I am looking forward to the challenges that we are going to face together, and I’m ready to celebrate the wins, because there are going to be a lot of wins for us as a campus.”

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