citybeat (2007-06)

UT's Black Faculty and Staff Association challenges the administration's commitment to diversity

Wednesday, Jan. 31

A Question in Black and White

On the first day of Black History Month, Thursday, Feb. 1, the Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA) at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville held a press conference regarding the "DebUT of the New Jim Crow Era." The University Center Auditorium was filled with university students and employees, as well as community members and local media as BFSA representative and Facility Services employee Dennie Littlejohn took the stage declaring: "We have come today to observe the right to protest."

At the heart of concerns for the BSFA are two issues: the overall climate of the University for Black faculty, staff and students in light of the recent settling of the 38-year lawsuit regarding the Geier Consent Decree, and more specifically, the denial of tenure for Dr. George White, an assistant professor of history.

Fearful of negative consequences or backlash should individuals publicly speak up, the BSFA hired TV personality Ron Sprowl to act as spokesperson for the organization and moderator of the event. Sprowl began by describing specific "racist episodes" that have occurred in recent history on the campus. Among the stories of "UT's failure to live up to its commitment to diversity" are instances of black employees being denied promotions, working at a lower salary than their white counterparts, suffering a perceived hostile work environment, and being terminated for reasons that appear to some to be racially based.

In all, nearly a dozen speakers took the stage, including personal friends and colleagues of White, as well as representatives from student organizations, United Campus Workers, East Tennessee Progressive Network, Greater Knoxville Civil Liberties Alliance, and the NAACP.

With the 2006 settling of the Geier lawsuit, required agreement on the part of University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents schools (such as Middle Tennessee State and East Tennessee State) to adhere to certain equality practices is no longer mandated. The consent decree, which in effect served as an affirmative action guide for state colleges and universities, came out of a Tennessee higher education desegregation case filed by then-Tennessee State University (TSU) faculty member Rita Sanders (now Geier) and other Tennesseans in 1968 under Title VI in an effort to dismantle Tennessee's de facto segregated system of education.

To summarize briefly, UT planned expansion to Nashville, and opponents believed that given the existence of nearby TSU, a historically black institution, UT Nashville would further perpetuate the racial divide in higher education. (Ultimately, the two institutions merged into one, with TSU as the "surviving" institution and UT Nashville's downtown building becoming a second campus for TSU.)

This past September, the courts declared that the state has achieved "unitary status" in higher education. And on Sept. 11, Gov. Bredesen announced an agreement among all parties to settle the case. In his speech, he stated that the settling of the Geier lawsuit, and consequently the dissolution of equality mandates connected to it, marks the official end of racial injustice in Tennessee's higher education systems: "Rita Sanders Geier--whether she realized she was doing it at the time--challenged Tennessee to go beyond desegregating our higher education institutions on paper. Instead, she challenged us to make sure we had built a system that truly offered equal access to all citizens. Today, I'm proud to announce that Tennessee has met this challenge."

Yet in a 15-page position paper released by the BFSA at the conference (described on the title page as "A statement of concern reiterating the urgent need to address racist practices, marginalization, denial of opportunity, and structured patterns of rejection visited upon African-American faculty and staff at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville"), the organization counters: "In our previous position paper in 1998, we noted with alarm the ways in which UT administrators, officials and employees actively sought to terminate the consent decree, or, short of that, to violate its letter and spirit.

"Consequently, our concerns are well-founded as UT enters into a period without any guidance, federal oversight, and mechanisms for accountability." Moreover, they assert that African-Americans at UT now are no more than "human trophies to 'prove' that the UT system has desegregated."

Indicative of the problem, according to the organization, is the refusal of tenure to White, who it says has more than met the teaching, research, and civic requirements to be granted the promotion. According to the history department's website, White specializes in American Diplomatic History, African American History, Modern African History, and History of Race Relations. He earned a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1987 and a Ph.D. in history from Temple University in 2001.

Currently, he is on leave from the university to serve as the Geraldine R. Dodge Postdoctoral Fellow at the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience.

In an 11-3 vote, the history department declared White worthy of tenure. According to Littlejohn, the rest of the tenure approval process is, in most cases, no more than a series of rubberstamps. Subsequently, as anticipated, White was approved for the promotion at the college level (College of Arts and Sciences), but was denied tenure by the dean of the college and the history department head.

Although the administration is not required to explain the reasoning behind the denial, Littlejohn and unnamed others are certain that a letter from another history faculty member to the dean and the department head regarding White's candidacy is responsible. The letter is purported to state that the book that White published--a requirement for tenure consideration--is not a scholarly work. Littlejohn says that White is planning to give a public lecture on his book, which addresses American foreign policy towards Africa, at some point this month.

Sprowl concluded the conference by summarizing the foremost six "issues of interest" for the BFSA. Included among them is a request for the "re-evaluation of the tenure and promotion process for Dr. George 'Tiger' White... with a response from University Chancellor Loren Crabtree..." by the end of the month.

As of press time, Littlejohn has received no less than three written letters and a multitude of other informal communication from African-Americans at UT claiming race-based marginalization in various forms. "Those who were silent out of fear are now coming forward," he says. Additionally, he has received offers of monetary donations to support a legal defense fund, should the BFSA and White not get the resolution they're looking for. Says Littlejohn, "If we don't hear by March 4 some good news for George (White), then we'll take it to the next level, whatever that may be."


Wednesday, Jan. 31

Thursday, Feb. 1

Friday, Feb. 2

Saturday, Feb. 3

Sunday, Feb. 4

Monday, Feb. 5

Tuesday, Feb. 6