By Carson Cook, Chattanooga, Tenn. —
Students, faculty and administrators gathered in the Multicultural Center for a town hall-style discussion about diversity last Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.
Chancellor Steven Angle led the discussion, seeking feedback on how to make campus more inclusive by proposing initiatives such as a general education course about tolerance, increasing the diversity among faculty and extracurricular programming.
“I don’t have answers,” said Angle. “I’m here to learn.”
“I hope people feel they can talk. I don’t want to be the only one leading the conversation, but I want to be at the table.”
One idea Angle returned to again and again was creating a general education course requirement that would help students understand oppression and how experiences differ for students because of race, gender, religion and other factors.
Ronald Elliott, a Junior from Nashville, spoke in favor of a cultural competency course as a general education requirement because it would unite all students.
“UTC is a foreign, new environment,” said Elliott. “New students may not get involved in extracurriculars, but they’re going to class, or they should be.”
Elliott’s last statement received laughs, but throughout the meeting there was a consensus the university should offer some programming to help students learn how to discuss race, diversity and privilege in a respectful way.
Students suggested that instead of a general education requirement, this program could take the form of a first year studies course, a retreat, or part of Freshman orientation, like the Read to Achieve program.
Dr. Gail Iles, a professor in the criminal justice department, said she received a student course review that said, “this is a criminal justice class, not a race class.” Iles asked how to get students to understand how to talk about race.
Elliott commended faculty who encouraged discussion about diversity, including two political science professors he had: Dr. Michelle Deardorff and Dr. Amanda Wintersieck.
These teachers make students feel welcome, according to Elliott, by “listening to how I feel and trying to understand the student perspective.”
Another topic of conversation during the town hall was about the diversity of University staff.
During the discussion, Black faculty members told stories about how they were the first Black teacher for some of their students. Some students said that they still had not taken a class with a professor that looked like them, which creates a disconnected feeling.
Angle admitted that diversity of staff was something that the university needed to work on.
“Sometimes change can’t happen overnight,” said Angle, noting particularly the lack of female department heads in the College of Arts and Science.
Allen DeBerry, a senior from Memphis, said he wanted to see a faculty that reflected students.
“You have to develop sustainable leadership, so it will last, so it’s not a bumpy road,” said DeBerry.
Students from the Honors College spoke about their experiences and said recruiting should extend beyond faculty and to students as well.
Meshia Seay, a junior from Lebanon, Tenn., said the hardest thing about being a Black person in the Honors College was being the only Black person at an event and questioning why she was accepted and if she really belongs.
Seay and Simone Edwards said they had heard other students make comments that they were only accepted into the Honors College because of their race.
Edwards said that things are getting better and that there are finally more than just a few minority students in the Honors College, but there should be more initiative to recruit new students.
Alondra Gomez, a Chattanooga community member, raised concerns about the lack of Hispanic students on campus. Less than five percent of the UTC student body is Hispanic.
Part of the reason for this is that students who are not U.S. citizens must pay out-of-state tuition. Legislation has been proposed to change this. One bill narrowly failed in the state House of Representatives last year, but lawmakers plan to try again in 2017.
Although Angle said he could not directly endorse a politician, he did lament that “artificial barriers” hold back people who contribute to society. Angle also said UTC is planning on offer an information session for potential students in Spanish, as many immigrant parents may not speak English.
Jared Steiman, a Freshman from Chattanooga, said that while its great to talk about diversity on campus, “every student needs to understand students who aren’t here at all.”
Quentin Payne, a senior from Memphis, said the campus does not do a good job promoting extracurriculars that support diversity.
“I don’t see a lot of things I can relate to event-wise and culture-wise . . . I’ve been here four years and the only thing I can think of is the international fair,” Payne said.
Edwards echoed this sentiment saying that during Welcome Week, aside from the events hosted by the Multicultural Center, events seem “fun, but not inclusive.”
Payne is also President of Brother2Brother, an organization that helps male students “in achieving academic, professional and social success,” according to its website. Payne said Brother2Brother and other organizations don’t always have the funds to do what they want.
Blake Kitterman, a Sophomore from Cleveland, Tenn., spoke about his experience with SGA and Spectrum, where student leaders have been cautious about programming after what happened at UTK.
Kitterman was referring to the state legislature’s negative response to UTK’s “Sex Week,” a series of events that raise awareness about sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual assault, and to a newsletter sent by UTK’s Pride Center that encouraged faculty to recognize students’ preferred names and pronouns.
This spring, the legislature passed a law (HB 2248/ SB 1912) which diverted more than $440,000 from UTK’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion to scholarships, and across the UT system prohibits state funds going “to promote the use of gender neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays, or to fund or support sex week.”
Kitterman said student groups are afraid about what this means for UTC and encouraged Angle to “let the students know the university is behind them.”
Angle responded, saying, “We’re in Tennessee, but there’s a point we have to stand up and do what’s right.”
Despite all positive things shared during the the conversation on diversity, some students felt like this was just talk.
Edwards said there was an impression among members of the Black Student Alliance that it’s cool these dialogues are happening, but nothing is really going to change.
Krista Burnette, a junior from Soddy Daisy, Tenn., said that she has attended similar events and feels like the same few people always show up.
Kitterman said the Chancellor’s staff needs to go into organizations that deal with diversity, such as the Black Student Alliance or Spectrum, and work on creating specific goals for this year and beyond.
“You can’t just listen to it and throw it out the window, you have to implement it,” said DeBerry.
Angle tried to assuage these fears by emphasizing that diversity is a personal priority for him.
“This is important to me too, not just as a campus leader but as a person,” said Angle.