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Faculty and alumni respond to People for Black History

Story by Shannon Taylor, Senior Investigative Reporter

A few weeks ago, the group “People for Black History” (PFBH) demanded action from UTM’s faculty senate to condemn what they coined “recently enacted White Supremacist education laws” that the group claimed banned teaching critical race theory in Tennessee and prohibited higher education from taking certain actions regarding divisive concepts.

Dr. David Barber is the faculty advisor to the group who sent a press release out stating that the UTM Faculty Senate leadership has attempted to dodge the demand that it condemns white supremacist education laws.

Faculty Senate President Clinton Smith said that neither Barber nor anyone from the group reached out to him to discuss the resolution or ask him to present it to the faculty senate and that he was only aware of the Student Government Association (SGA) vote to pass the resolution. Smith said that the Faculty Senate on Committee Instruction invited Barber to present his resolution and they met a couple of weeks ago to discuss the resolution where, after a period of questions and answers with Barber, decided to table the discussion until the next meeting so the board could get more information.

Smith said, “One major concern is that the information in the resolution is inaccurate. The resolution states that academic freedom and free speech for both students and faculty will be infringed upon. That is not the case.”

In sections 4-7of the divisive concepts law which refer to academic freedom and freedom of speech it states the role of higher education regarding the topic and faculty academic freedom and freedom of speech for both students and faculty are protected.  “Students or faculty cannot be discriminated against or penalized if they choose not to agree with any of the divisive concepts. Higher education universities cannot mandate trainings that include divisive topics or use state funds to incentivize faculty to include these topics in their curriculum. But note, academic freedom and free speech are still protected. Higher education institutions are mandated to conduct a survey of students biennially to measure campus climate with regard to students being able to speak freely regardless of political affiliation or ideology.”

Smith said another concern was the “idea of a false dichotomy presented: that the faculty senate either adopt the resolution or we are effectively siding with white supremacy.” Smith said that the information in the press release from the student group is incorrect and that committee members expressed concerns over Barber’s language in the resolution and that it would actually do more harm than good. “Almost everyone who spoke at the committee meeting expressed at least some level of support for the intent of resolution. There were concerns about the impact of the statement, therefore leading the committee to table the item until we could discuss it further.” Smith said this was due to several members not having seen the resolution and others having multiple questions regarding it.

Smith said parliamentary procedure is being followed by not holding up the case or stifling the topic and that once the committee meets, they have several options. “They could pass the resolution, amend the resolution, prepare a different resolution or response, or decide not to move forward or not pass the resolution. If they choose one of the above (except not moving forward/not passing the resolution), the item would then come to the full faculty senate for discussion and vote. The faculty senate would then have the same options as the committee.”

Professor of History at UTM Margaret Lewis responded and said that it was a “very difficult subject” and that she concurred with Smith’s statement. Lewis said, “I believe most faculty are concerned about legislation that might infringe our academic freedom, but we also don’t want to jump at condemning an entire institution for taking a careful, measured approach. Not immediately accepting the resolution is not the same as rejecting it. I understand the faculty member’s concerns, but I disagree with his approach, and I worry that it will do more harm than good. It could undermine any efforts we are taking and hopefully will take to work toward real, effective change for the benefit of our students and community. UTM should always continue to work at becoming more inclusive in both the makeup of our community and the curriculum we offer.” Lewis said that it was not an “us vs them” but instead is “far more complex.”

Alumni Jeniffer Green told the Press that she was on Barbers former Black History Matters Committee in 2020 but resigned after Barber “made it clear to me that he was more qualified than members of the black faculty to address the needs of black students and that he made it more than clear that he was “here to agitate and make noise” and was more interested in the process than the outcome. Green believes both then and now with the new group that Barber has caused more harm than good and that he is the reason progress hasn’t happened and that he should ask himself “what are you actually bringing to the black table” and asked him to step away so that “real change can happen.” Green made points that Barber has continually “trashed his university” and by doing so, does not have the interests of students in mind. Green also expressed concerns that Barber has been unable to recruit a black faculty member to the group thus far. Green said, “He was more interested in being viewed as an ally than he was going through the process to ensure a successful outcome for the black students and community he claimed he wanted to help.”

Chair of Committee on Instruction and Professor of History at UTM, Richard Garlitz, said that he echoed Smith’s sentiments and said, “I want to note that Dr. David Barber was the only person from the group PFBH at the February 21 Committee on Instruction (COI) meeting. No one from the group PFBH spoke to me in any context or at any time prior to Tuesday’s (March 14) full Faculty Senate meeting.  I haven’t spoken to everyone on the COI since these stories broke, but so far no member has indicated that they have spoken to anyone from PFBH.”

Garlitz agreed with Smith and stated, “The COI (or the full Senate) could, of course, choose not to pass the resolution because a majority of its members believe it is unwise.  That is not the same as defending white supremacy.  Moreover, the entire argument is a strawman.  It misrepresents what happened at the February 21 COI meeting to make what was actually a reasonable discussion seem far more sinister.”

Garlitz added that the reasoning for tabling the discussion was to get more information and consider possible revisions to the language. This was due to members voicing concerns that the original language would do more harm than good. Several members pointed to the possibility that an inflammatory resolution could provoke retaliatory measures by the legislature, either in the form of funding cuts or other restrictions on higher education activities.

Garlitz said that “Dr. Barber acknowledged in the COI meeting that he did not think that passing the resolution in the Faculty Senate would move the legislature to repeal the legislation.”

Garlitz also said that the COI does not endorse or defend white supremacy.  “It wanted time to look more deeply into the issue and to consider alternative language.  That’s a normal part of building consensus.  It’s how the parliamentary process works.  It’s how democracy works.  To charge that the COI “is effectively siding with white supremacy” is irresponsible and unfairly attacks the reputations of its members.”

The statement from PFBH read that “they insist on calling these laws by what they are…” but Garlitz said that “the COI didn’t insist on anything. It chose to take more time to look into how closely the resolution corresponds to existing state law and to consider revision to the language.”

Garlitz pointed out too that PFBH stated that “Our critics believe that the state of Tennessee…” but Garlitz pointed out that “most members who spoke offered at least some support for the idea of a resolution. Making this look like a sharp “us vs. them” just doesn’t correspond to the reality of the discussion. The whole thing unfairly painted the whole COI in a very negative light.”

The COI did take action on the resolution Tuesday, March 28 and the resolution is now headed to the Faculty Senate for their consideration.

This is a developing story.