Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Lightening Up

By Liz Murray Garrigan; Photography by Susan Adcock

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  To attend Tennessee State University, regular admissions standards say a student must have a 2.25 high school grade point average and an ACT score of 19. That means that TSU, a predominantly black public college, has the lowest regular admissions standards in the state. By contrast, if a high school student with an ACT score of 19 wants to attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, that student must have a minimum grade point average of 2.4.

What's more, in an effort to attract non-black students, TSU offers full-ride scholarships to white high school students with grade point averages of 2.5, a mediocre showing by any standard. Meanwhile, black students are not likely to get the same deal at Tennessee's predominantly white universities.

That state of affairs only exacerbates the racial polarization on the TSU campus. Some white faculty and students badmouth the university for its low admissions standards. Meanwhile, some black faculty and students question whether the scholarships for whites--minorities on that campus--are really fair.

TSU's local reputation is already clouded, rightly or wrongly, by negative perceptions, and the last thing it needs is a controversy that feeds on racial divisions. Nevertheless, some faculty members are mounting a none-too-quiet insurrection about the university's efforts--or its lack of effort--to attract white students to its campus. They are also concerned that the TSU administration seems unable to stem the tide of Nashville students who now drive to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

Like Tennessee's other state-supported universities, TSU has been charged with desegregating its student body. Under the terms of a long-standing federal desegregation order, the school's full-time equivalent (FTE) undergraduate enrollment was supposed to have been 50 percent white by 1993. At present, with an FTE undergraduate student body that is approximately 15 percent white, TSU is the most desegregated state university in Tennessee, but it is still far away from attaining its court-ordered goal. In fact, the percentage of whites at TSU has dropped steadily over the last several years.

The situation has left some faculty members feeling frustrated. In a recent resolution, the faculty senate endorsed the TSU administration's goal of increasing the school's overall enrollment. At the same time, the senate requested copies of the administration's plan to increase enrollment. Copies of the plan were never provided. Instead, Hefner asked the senate to come up with its own plan.

In 1977, Tennessee State was ordered to merge with the University of Tennessee-Nashville in 1979, 11 years after Rita Sanders Geier, a black professor at TSU, filed suit to prevent the construction of a UT campus in Nashville. The argument was that Nashville already had a state university, the historically black TSU, and that the city didn't need another college campus. UT was allowed to build its campus, and Geier's lawsuit against the state of Tennessee still has not been settled. Seven years after the 1977 court order, which required the two schools to merge and keep the TSU name, the court approved a settlement that had implications for public colleges and universities statewide. TSU was to recruit more white students. The goal, to be reached by 1993, was a 50 percent white, 50 percent non-white student body. The same settlement directed Tennessee's predominantly white state schools to boost their black enrollment numbers to reflect the racial makeup of the areas from which they draw their students. Federal Judge Thomas Wiseman Jr. signed the settlement in 1984, transforming it into a court order.

"The ultimate goal," according to Wiseman's order, was "not any ideal ratio or mix of black and white students or faculty. The goal is a system of higher education in Tennessee's tax-supported colleges and universities in which race is irrelevant." To achieve "color-blindness, there must be color-consciousness to overcome the residual effects of past color-based discrimination," Wiseman wrote.

Like the state's other public colleges and universities, TSU is still bound by the 1984 court order. Over the years, various parties with a stake in the case have become what are called, in legal jargon, "intervenors" in the lawsuit. Each of the parties and those intervenors has a slightly different perspective on the desegregation issue.

For example, the state of Tennessee, the primary defendant in the Geier case, wants the court order to be lifted. Earlier this year, Wiseman refused the state's request, saying it was "premature."

The office of the state attorney general argues that Tennessee has eliminated from its higher education system all policies and procedures that are "traceable" to segregation. "We think that the [higher education] institutions have complied in good faith," says Rachel Steele, special counsel,who has been handling the case for the office of the attorney general. "I don't think any of them think they have done all that they want to do, but they've all been moving forward at a good pace."

Not everyone agrees with Steele's assessment, especially not the TSU faculty members who are intervenors in the case and still others who say the slippage in TSU's white enrollment is disturbing. The total number of white undergraduates attending TSU, both full-time and part-time, fell to 18.8 percent this past fall, down from 22.1 percent the year before. In the fall of 1994, whites made up 27.7 percent of undergraduate enrollment.

"The latest numbers look pretty bleak," says Coleman McGinnis, a TSU associate professor who seems determined to make sure the university abides by the 1984 court order. "I think that, until the university, at its highest echelon, takes some steps to make it clear that they want to attract students from [the Middle Tennessee area], they're not going to have much success." McGinnis is frank in stating what he sees as TSU's greatest obstacle in attracting white students: "There is hostility," he says, "to white students coming."

Meanwhile, TSU President James Hefner and the rest of his administration must deal with the fact that many white Nashvillians do not even know how to find the university's campus. They have no idea that the university is finishing up a capital improvement program, costing more than $100 million. Neither do they know that the TSU business school is only one of two in Nashville accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business--Vanderbilt's graduate business program is the other. And they would never guess that TSU is the only university in Nashville to have a chapter of the prestigious Phi Kappa Phi honor society. As Ken Looney, dean of TSU's Center for Extended Education, puts it, "We are the best-kept secret in Nashville." Like the school's administration, TSU faculty members are frustrated by the ignorance of the Nashville populace, but they're even more disturbed by the fact that scores of Nashvillians, for whatever reason, are ignoring TSU and making the commute to Murfreesboro's Middle Tennessee State University. The student body at MTSU, 30 miles from Nashville, includes almost as many Davidson County residents as TSU, which has a downtown campus and a main campus, both of which are convenient to Interstate 40. MTSU has 3,418 students from Davidson County; TSU has 3,618.

Under the stipulations of the 1984 desegregation settlement agreement, TSU is supposed to be the primary university for Middle Tennessee, but MTSU's growth continues to outpace it. Since 1979, when TSU and UT-Nashville merged, MTSU's student body has grown from 10,880 to 18,366. TSU had a 8,438 headcount in 1979. After years of lower numbers, it has climbed in the past few years to 8,625. "I look at [MTSU's] growth with envy," says David Broad, who is head of the TSU Sociology Department and chairman of the university's faculty senate.

Broad does not mince words. He says that the goals of the court order and the desire among powerful alumni and faculty for the school to remain predominantly black are conflicting. He asserts that the university's failure to attract more white students is "racially motivated," adding that "the motivation appears to be to retain as much as possible the historical character of the institution."

In the past, some members of the Sociology Department have accused Broad, who is white, of being a racist, although the university administration investigated the claims and decided that they were unfounded. Broad, who is Jewish and from New York, says he had never been labeled as "white" before he came to TSU. "There's a double standard about this. People who are not historically the primary targets of racism just aren't supposed to be the spokespeople on this issue."

Broad compares TSU to the predominantly white universities of the late 1950s. "I know that African Americans have suffered indignities in American institutional life for a very long time," he says, drawing a controversial comparison. "What non-African Americans suffer at TSU is very much like what African Americans experienced in historically white institutions in the not-so-distant past."

Hefner says he desperately wants to attract more white students to TSU, but he cautions that "it's not going to take off overnight." On the other hand, the TSU president says his university's job is to provide "access" for all potential students and to make sure TSU has programs that will attract "whomever." Desegregation issues, he suggests, will take care of themselves. "If Tennessee State ends up over 50 percent white, so be it," Hefner says.

Nationwide, historically black colleges have worked hard to maintain their heritage and their largely black enrollments. "We can't hide the fact that we're historically black, since we were founded as a black institution," Hefner says. "You can't deny your history."

TSU alumni and black leaders in the state Legislature are often cited as those who apply the most pressure to keep the school predominantly black. George Van Allen, president of Nashville State Technical Institute, whose students frequently transfer to TSU, says predominantly black universities throughout the country have frequently faced a political dilemma. "The problem is, how do you achieve truly integrated colleges without damaging the traditional role of black universities," Van Allen says.

It should not be surprising, then, that the TSU Alumni Association has become involved in the desegregation case, pushing for its dismissal. The alumni association's argument sounds much like that proposed by the office of the state attorney general. Citing a majority white graduate-school enrollment and a faculty that is about 45 percent non-black, an attorney for the alumni association says TSUis desegregated. "TSU has ample representation of both races in its faculty and staff,"says Robert L. Smith, who maintains that TSU has "fairly well representative numbers of non-African Americans in contrast to other state institutions." According to Smith, the local community can't be "forced" to attend or support the university. And Hefner says his administration is trying to attract white students to TSU. "I think that there is a question here of choice," he says. "When people select MTSU over TSU, I'm sure they do it for a number of reasons."

TSU professor David Broad
Hefner says, "When people vote with their feet, you just have to keep working at it. I don't bemoan the students going to MTSU. I would like to get as many of those students as we can get, but I have to believe that these students obviously are aware of who we are and that we are not that far from them. I have to assume that they feel they are making a rational decision in going to MTSU."

While no one can prove that TSU's administration has specific plans to keep the school black, Broad and some of his colleagues say the alumni association, combined with the behavior of some TSU students, has a heavy influence on the university's recruitment policies. For many whites at TSU, a campus controversy last year brought to light what seemed to be a clear case of anti-white racism.

Karen Espenant, a white student who was editor of the campus newspaper, The Meter, said she was told she should quit her job with the paper, even though she was the only student who had applied for the position. "We still, at the university, would like our school newspaper to be black," LaShun Thomas, a student from Chicago, told The Tennessean at the time. Another student said, "We want our paper to be a meter of the campus. If that takes an African American to be in office, then it should be."

For MTSU, regular admissions requirements are tougher than they are at TSU. MTSU says that students should have a grade point average of at least 2.8 and a minimum ACT score of 20. To be admitted to the Honors Program at TSU, a student must have a 3.0 grade point average and an ACT score of 21. At MTSU, honors students must have either a minimum 26 ACT score or a 3.5 grade point average accompanied by an ACT score of 20.

The way it looks to John Cade, TSU's dean of admissions and records since 1994, having the lowest admissions standards in the Tennessee Board of Regents system is nothing for his university to brag about. "I don't think that the [desegregation] stipulation said that our standards had to be lower than the other standards in the state," Cade says. "It doesn't matter how many changes you make, as it relates to quality of service. You also have to think about the marketing aspect as it relates to students you're trying to recruit." And, when students see TSU's lower requirements, Cade says, they "make comparisons, and, often, they don't understand."

TSU President James Hefner
As a case in point, Cade notes that the application fee for all Tennessee Board of Regents schools was, until very recently, $5, a strikingly low figure compared to those charged by other schools across the country, where fees are usually in the $30 range. "For the student who is a competitive student, [the low fee] implies something different than it does to the student who simply doesn't want to pay more than $5," Cade says.

Cade objected, and the Tennessee Board of Regents approved a fee increase to $15. That fact alone may help indicate to students that TSU is not selling itself short, suggests Cade, who is now finalizing a proposal for admissions changes that he plans to submit to Hefner. "I don't know how the president will or will not respond," Cade says, "but I am definitely going to submit them."

Some faculty members charge that the university continues to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort to recruit black students from outside Tennessee, especially from predominantly black high schools in large cities. "The problem is that the administration continues to pour most of its recruiting effort into sending folks off to Chicago and Detroit and Pittsburgh and Atlanta, rather than trying to make it look like they would love to have folks from Davidson County come to school there," says TSU faculty member Coleman McGinnis. About 25 percent of Tennessee State's enrollment does, in fact, come from out of state, and that figure exceeds the maximum guideline established by the Tennessee Board of Regents. The board's policy says that out-of-state enrollment at its schools should not exceed 20 percent. "That's just a target," says Julie Walker, communications director for the Tennessee Board of Regents.

TSU may have so many non-Tennesseans on its campus because it takes advantage of a Board of Regents policy that permits TSU and other state schools to offer tuition at in-state rates to high-achieving students from outside Tennessee. Hefner defends the practice, noting that TSU did not lead the drive to approve the scholarship.

But others are skeptical about a program that grants in-state tuition to out-of-state students. "We treat Wayne County, Mich., as if it's Wayne County, Tenn.," says Lewis Laska, a professor of business law at TSU who has filed what are known as "friend of the court" briefs in the continuing desegregation lawsuit.

Meanwhile, black faculty members such as Carolyn Caudle, an assistant professor, argue that the university's practice of granting free tuition to white high school students with a minimum 2.5 grade point average is much more egregious. "There is nowhere in the world where black students can go with a 2.5 average and get a full ride," says Caudle, who contends that "2.5 is not scholarship material." In her opinion, in fact, with that policy, Tennessee State may be going overboard to recruit white students. "I don't have a problem with them doing that," she says, "but [blacks] can't go to UT with a 2.5."

Laska, who is white, maintains that "black publicly supported universities are the last vestige of legal apartheid in this country. No other place in our culture tolerates separation of the races, endorses it, sponsors it, accepts it." And he says the university's Strategic Plan for the years 1996 through 2000 offers plenty of proof that TSU doesn't truly want to integrate. According to Laska, "Nowhere in that document does it say anything about meeting the goal of 50-50."

Laska, arguing that TSU has satisfied neither the spirit nor the letter of the 1984 settlement agreement, says he will offer the federal court approximately 20 different alternatives for relief in the desegregation case. Perhaps the most extreme of his suggestions is what he calls the "Laska Plan." It would allow any white or black student to attend TSU for free, while any black student could attend any predominantly white state college or university for free as well.

"I'm doing what college professors are supposed to do," Laska says. "I'm coming forward with new solutions to old problems. That's why we have tenure, so that we can say, 'Excuse me, emperor, you don't have any clothes on,' without getting fired."

Faculty and students on both sides of the recruiting issue are unified on at least one point. Many say TSU should be more aggressive in advertising itself to Davidson County residents. "I would like to see more television advertising in and around Nashville, and I don't necessarily want to see that in order to change the racial mix of TSU," says Deborah Moore, a graduate student and a teaching assistant studying literature. "I'd like to see more advertising simply because I'm proud of my school. When I see an ad for MTSU or Vol State, I wish people could see the new things we have on our campus, because they're not driving over here to see them." Caudle, too, says TSU could probably be more aggressive in its advertising, but she maintains that the scholarships for whites with a 2.5 grade point average shouldn't be a selling point. "I don't think that's something that needs to be advertised," Caudle says.

Attorneys and other interested parties expect a hearing in the controversial desegregation lawsuit next year. At that time, Judge Wiseman could either relieve the state from meeting the goals in the settlement agreement or force the schools to achieve the goals that were established in 1984. It's also possible he'll simply encourage the parties to continue working toward the goals set out in 1984.

George Barrett, the attorney representing the original plaintiff in the case, is proposing a merger of the Board of Regents, the University of Tennessee board, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the three state agencies that govern the state's public colleges and universities. Placing all state schools under the governance of one board, he says, would lay the groundwork for a system that permits "cross-transfers, cross transfer of tenure, and that sort of thing, giving faculty and students an opportunity to move around."

Barrett says he is mainly interested in the desegregation of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, which has only about 5 percent black enrollment, less than half its goal of 11 percent. What's more, Barrett says, the focus on TSU as a result of Geier's lawsuit is unfair. "My constant theme has been that TSU should not bear the burden of dismantling the dual system of higher education," Barrett says. "TSU has an obligation to be as non-racially identifiable as UT, but I don't think they should bear the whole burden."

Meanwhile, Hefner says he is trying to get beyond the question of race at TSU. "Race is a barrier, and I'm trying my best to transcend race, to make people understand that Tennessee State is more than an historically black college."

Still, faculty members anxious for growth at TSU say the administration should get more serious about recruiting, particularly in Middle Tennessee. "In today's higher education marketplace, you don't just sit there and wait for people to apply," Broad says. "We're in a position where we have to recruit--not just to get a basic number but to get the kind of diversity that makes a higher education environment a vital one."

At TSU, though, there is a striking difference in the way different faculty members envision the university's future. Caudle says the consensus among her colleagues is that the state spent millions of dollars to improve the TSU campus simply as a means of attracting more whites to the school. "The feeling from a lot of the minority [black] faculty is that all the improvements have not necessarily been made for Tennessee State and the black institution," Caudle says. As a result of the campus makeover, Caudle says her colleagues are convinced that TSU will meet--and even exceed--the court-ordered goal of a 50-50 racial mix. And the result will be a TSU that is different from the one they know. "Most of my colleagues seem to feel that Tennessee State will definitely not be a black institution," Caudle says, "but a white institution with white administrators and the whole bit."

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