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Nashville Scene Comparing Catastrophes

At TSU, charges and counter-charges.

By Liz Murray Garrigan

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Amid a heated campus debate, a professor at Tennessee State University is calling for sanctions against the chairman of TSU's faculty senate for making the "outrageous claim" that the alienation whites feel on the historically black campus is similar to the way blacks felt during legal segregation.

Ironically, in chiding David Broad for making the controversial comparison, Nkem Nwankwo, a professor of English at TSU, draws another questionable comparison, one that might well raise a few eyebrows among historians.

"Legal segregation had roots in chattel slavery, probably the worst crime ever committed against humanity: far worse than the horrendous holocaust," Nwankwo wrote in a recent letter to TSU President James Hefner.

In his letter, Nwankwo requests that Broad, who is also a professor and head of the school's sociology department, be punished. Specifically, Nwankwo asks that Broad be removed as department head and impeached from the senate because of remarks quoted late last year in a Nashville Scene story about recruitment policies and race relations at TSU.

"I know that African Americans have suffered indignities in American institutional life for a very long time," Broad told the Scene in November. "What non-African Americans suffer at TSU is very much like what African Americans experienced at historically white institutions in the not-so-distant past." In the same article, Broad acknowledged that it is not popular for people "who are not historically the primary targets of racism" to be "spokespeople" on the issue.

Behind the scenes, people in Nashville's university and education communities quietly lauded Broad for his willingness to address the possibility that there is black racism on the TSU campus, where student enrollment has stagnated. But Broad's critics haven't been so quiet. His comments created an uproar at TSU--and not just because of their content. Some members of the faculty senate say he misused his role as senate chairman by being so open in stating his personal opinion.

There have been threats within the faculty senate of a "vote of no confidence" against Broad, but Nwankwo, who is not a member of the senate, is going much further by calling for university administration to "relieve" Broad of his job as head of the sociology department. What's more, he wants the faculty senate to begin impeachment proceedings to remove Broad as its leader.

"I have questions about the judgment of the chair of the faculty senate in making a public statement which has the potential for polarizing the university," Nwankwo told the Scene. "I mean, anybody can express their opinion to anybody, but when you are in a leadership position, when you are chair of the faculty senate, ...you ought to be very discreet about what you say."

Nwankwo intimates there may be poor race relations at TSU, where enrollment of white undergraduates fell to 18.8 percent last fall, even while a federal court order called for the university to reach a goal of a 50 percent white, 50 percent non-white student body by 1993. Meanwhile, in nearby Murfreesboro, mostly white Middle Tennessee State University has experienced explosive growth, attracting more and more students, both black and white.

But, Nwankwo says, "I don't know how you improve poor race relations by pointing the finger at your own university," adding that he questions Broad's "judgment." Making such comments "doesn't make sense to me, and it seems like anybody who does that doesn't really deserve the leadership position they hold," he says.

At the same time, Nwankwo stands by his assertion that slavery was "far worse" than the Holocaust, Adolph Hitler's methodical plan to destroy Jews and other minorities in the years leading up to, and during, World War II. He says he has no problem with stating that one unthinkable historical injustice is worse than another.

"I think that this is not controversial," Nwankwo says, adding that the two horrors can be successfully quantified. "It's a matter of cost of human life," he says. "One almost destroyed the African continent and went on for 300 years. The other one happened between 1939 and 1945, and we know that it cost six million lives." Nwankwo says there isn't "an issue there" and that "you can make a value judgment about which is worse than the other."

Nwankwo says that TSU President Hefner hasn't responded to his Jan. 29 letter calling for Broad's demotion and impeachment. Hefner was out of town earlier this week and could not be reached for comment.

At least in subtle ways, however, it appears that the TSU administration has chastised Broad for speaking his mind. In a Dec. 10 letter to all TSU administrators, faculty, and staff, Hefner characterized recent criticism of the university as "unwarranted and unfair" and cautioned that "others will sling arrows our way," adding that "we needn't do the same to each other."

Last month, Augustus Bankhead, the university's vice president for academic affairs, told the faculty senate that the body was illegally constituted. Specifically, Bankhead noted that the senate's membership exceeds its official limit of 30 and said that the situation should be remedied. Broad was not available for comment earlier this week, but various sources say the senate membership hovers at one or two members more than the limit of 30.

Bankhead's observation was correct, but some members of the senate wondered about the administration's motives. Anthony J. Blasi, an associate professor of social work and sociology who recently stepped down from the senate to help lower the headcount to 30, says the timing of the administration's "great interest in the technicalities of the senate constitution" was a little suspicious.

Beyond that, he says, "It is my understanding that, in law, how a contract is carried out over time creates precedent, and custom has the same force of contract. So that, actually, this problem of being over 30 need not have been seen as a problem."

Asked to discuss the administration's concern about the makeup of the senate, Bankhead said he did "not care to make any comment regarding the faculty senate."

Senate members interviewed by the Scene seem, in general, to support Broad's concerns about TSU's stalled enrollment. But they also say he was wrong to raise the specter of race when voicing those concerns. Tom Head, an associate professor of business administration and a member of the senate, says the senate's interest in growth has "less to do with race and more to do with trying to clean up and improve ourselves." Head acknowledges that it "might be idealistic" to think growth can be discussed without mentioning race, but he says the senate would have preferred it if Broad had not raised the subject of race in his comments to the Scene.

Meanwhile, other faculty members seem to think the latest attacks on Broad may illustrate the same poor race relations the embattled senate president was trying to point up. "I think David Broad has been the victim of anti-Semitism," Blasi says, adding that Nwankwo himself may not be anti-Semitic.

What's more, Blasi points out that the senate constitution has no provision for votes of no confidence or for impeachments and says that "any attempt to take an action against Dr. Broad because of his opinion...would have a chilling factor on First Amendment rights."

Lewis Laska, a professor of business law at TSU, suggests that the senate and Broad's critics are both way off track. "The issue is not Dr. Broad," Laska wrote last month in a letter to the faculty senate. "It is much wider." According to Laska's letter, "venting spleen at individuals only draws energy away from tackling an issue that is vital to the progress of TSU, growth through attracting more students, in particular white students."

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