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UT Martin Faculty Senate Committee Set To Vote On Black History, Culture Course Resolution


Tension persists between part of the University of Tennessee at Martin (UTM) campus community and the university’s administration. Members of the UTM Black History Matters Coalition (BHMC) told WKMS they feel as if their concerns are falling on deaf ears; university representatives told WKMS procedural changes take time to enact. Tomorrow, the UTM Faculty Senate Executive Committee will vote on a resolution which aims to improve cultural diversity and inclusion by requiring African American History and Thought as a required general education course for all studies.

The faculty senate was slated to vote on the resolution during the Oct. meeting, but Faculty Senate President Sean Walkerremoved the item from the agenda just ahead of the meeting, a measure which caused further division. But Walker said the Faculty Senate Executive Committee will consider the resolution during the Nov. 10 meeting.


‘These things take time’

Walker said the voting members of the executive committee include the senate president, the faculty senate president-elect or vice president, the faculty senate secretary, and the chairs of the five major Faculty Senate committees. He said non-voting members include past presidents, the provost and the chancellor; he invited the associate provost and faculty senate parliamentarian to attend as well, to serve in advisory roles.


If the resolution passes the executive committee, the full faculty senate will review and vote on the measure during the Nov. 24 meeting. 


But Walker said there are a few considerations to keep in mind as the process moves forward. One consideration: the executive committee may not vote on the measure, it may choose instead to table the matter until a curricular change request is submitted to accompany the resolution. A second consideration: the executive committee may choose to pass the measure to the committee on instruction (who decides which classes stay or are removed from curriculum) to review. A third consideration: even if the resolution passes committee and faculty senate, that doesn’t guarantee change.


“Resolutions are statements of preference. But no curriculum change will occur until faculty members submit a curriculum request through the process that is outlined in the faculty handbook. And then it has to go through the process and be approved,” Walker said.


The process takes up to nine steps, Walker explained, going through a number of committees before it reaches the faculty senate, where it goes through more committees before approval. If passed through the faculty senate, it’s sent to the chancellor for final approval. 


Considering the many steps it would take to enact the general education course the resolution seeks, Walker estimated academic year 2022-2023 is the earliest it could become a reality--if it passes.


“The process is there to protect the curriculum, and primarily focused on protecting the students,” Walker said. 


When asked if he thinks the resolution will pass the executive committee, Walker said, “I really don’t know.” When asked if he personally supported creation of the course he said, “I still need more specificity,” and cited the bureaucratic process he believes would provide that specificity.


Walker said he is supportive of any possibility to provide more diversity and inclusion for minorities and the LGBTQ+ spectrum in all studies and courses, across the board. 


‘We can charitably say it’s miscommunication’


Dr. David Barber, a member of the BHMC and history professor, said the coalition is frustrated because the members perceive reluctance to have the conversation. He said when members of the coalition approach university administrators to discuss the issues, they’re met with “obstacles that exist before we can have the conversation.”


“Do we need a requirement? After 400 years, do we need all the people in this country to have an understanding of Black history and Black culture? It appears to us that they don't want to have that conversation,” Barber said. 


“The Faculty Senate leadership and the administration are constantly talking about all these steps, steps to be taken in a prescribed fashion and originating in individual departments -- and in so doing, they are dodging their own responsibility,” he added. 


Barber said the group is aware of the curricular change request process, and they’re still asking the faculty senate to approve the resolution.


“We are proposing the resolution to get a commitment from the Faculty Senate on support for a requirement in African American History and Culture. With that kind of commitment we can sit down and have a sane discussion about how to make such a requirement happen. Absent that commitment we would be spinning our wheels trying to get anything through the Faculty Senate,” he explained.


Barber noted the BHMC’s position is the university cannot fulfill its mission statement without a requirement in African American History and Culture and states it is the university's responsibility to figure out how to make that requirement happen. 


‘You can love somewhere and also see where it can benefit to change’


UTM senior Alexis Millsaps said she’s “troubled” by the perception she and other BHMC members of the coalition receive from the larger campus community. 


Credit screenshot / Zoom
(Top photo) Dr. David Barber, a UTM professor and member of the Black History Matters Coalition and (bottom photo) Alexis Millsaps, UTM senior and one of the top leaders of the Black History Matters Coalition

“It's come across a sort of a negative connotation, to be in a place of leadership in this group, because I think they have this concept that for us to criticize UT Martin's curriculum, or [Chancellor] Carver, we must, like, hate the school and have this bone to pick with Dr. Carver, which isn't the case. Because at this point, I would consider him a friend. And I do respect him as a person. And I love this school. But I think it's important to note that you can love somewhere and also see where it can, you know, benefit to change.” 


Millsaps said she also feels as if more faculty and university administrators should be involved, because it’s an issue important to a large body of students.


“The biggest thing I'm confused about is why the other faculty members and administrators who are essentially employed for the benefit of the students on this campus wouldn't pause to listen to the students on this campus. I don't understand how they expect to make any defining decisions or change large parts of the curriculum without the input of students,” she explained. 


When asked if she thinks the resolution will pass the first committee on Nov. 10, Millsaps said, “I don't know.” 


‘The silence is deafening, is the problem’


Millsaps said the coalition’s frustration is heightened by the perceived lack of commitment from the university administration. She said they’ve been unable to find administrators willing to back the proposed requirement, which she called, “offensive.”


“It's literally as simple as, 'Do you value Black lives enough to prioritize this? Do you value Black History enough to teach it? Yes, or no,’” she said. “And there shouldn't be any confusion over what our goals are and why this came about. Black people's lives, Black people's culture and Black people's history is important. And the fact that it's in question with this university is offensive.” 


“These are people's lives that you're belittling,” she added. “This is the history of my people that you're making small. Our whole lives, we've learned American history, and we've learned about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, occasionally Booker T. Washington. And that's not enough, because Black people are more than that.” 


‘I am always down for a conversation’


Chancellor Kevin Carver told WKMS the UT Martin administration and faculty started considering ways in which they could do better with diversity and inclusion around the time George Floyd died at the hands of law enforcement officers in May. He said those conversations extended into the student body also, some students who aren’t affiliated with particular groups, some who are members of the BHMC and some who are affiliated with the UT Martin Black Student Association


Carver said due to the ongoing health pandemic, his ‘open door policy’ has consisted more of Zoom meetings and phone calls. But he and his wife, Hollianne, have continued welcoming groups of students into his home for dinner, and confirmed Millsaps has been among those guests.


In response to the nationwide racial justice movement and in response to feedback he received during those conversations, Carver said the university has already implemented ways he hopes will create a more diverse and inclusive campus culture. One of the new measures, in which Carver expressed great confidence, is selection of UTM’s first Chief of Diversity and Inclusion Officer. 


UTM selected Dr. Mark McCloud in July 2020 for the cabinet level position in which Carver said he’s peers with the other vice chancellors on campus. 


“I'm calling Mark our full time cultural diversity champion and culture champion for the university. And he has permission to step on my toes, and, you know, hold me accountable and hold the campus accountable moving forward,” Carver said.


Some of the other initiatives include a diversity task force Carver said was activated in winter 2019, human resources initiatives such as recruiting and maintaining a more diverse faculty and staff, a bias reporting system, and more actively tracking recruitment and retention of diversity in the student body.


But Carver said the administration understands a major component to providing a home where all students, faculty and staff feel safe, welcomed and comfortable is an initiative that extends beyond the borders of the campus. And that’s why, he said, McCloud is also working with leaders in the city of Martin.


“We've brought students here, we brought faculty here, but if the culture is not right when they arrive, they're not going to have a good experience,” he explained. “And so, what is it about the student culture, and what is it about the campus culture for our faculty and staff that we can do to improve? That’s the biggest piece that I'm really excited about,” he said. 


‘I really support a curricular effort to create cultural awareness’


Carver acknowledged the final step in making the African American History and Thought course a curricular requirement would be his signature for final approval, but refrained from sharing his personal opinion on that particular course being mandated. He said curricular reform “needs to come from within the faculty.”


“I've said it to our alums, I've said to our students, and also our internal audiences, I really support any curricular effort to create cultural awareness and meaningful dialogue towards diversity and inclusion at UTM.” 


Carver also noted the university currently has and offers a Black history course. He said it’s offered at least once a year, maybe twice a year, but consistently fills when it’s offered. He said it’s not mandated, but is popular. 

Rachel’s interest in journalism began early in life, reading newspapers while sitting in the laps of her grandparents. Those interactions ignited a thirst for language and stories, and she recalls getting caught more than once as a young girl hiding under the bed covers with a flashlight and book because she just couldn’t stop reading.
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