The University of Memphis has canceled a recent grant for its social justice programming, formed in August 2020, after Gov. Bill Lee expressed concerns about the latest initiative, according to a statement from the governor’s office.
The program has 14 groups focused on improving academic outcomes for students of color, retaining faculty of color and improving pay equity, as well as minority business contracting and creating diverse, equitable and inclusive coursework.
The status of the entire programming is unclear. University of Memphis officials did not respond to requests for information as of Wednesday afternoon.
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The latest initiative offered 15-20 professors a $3,000 grant to “support faculty who are interested in redesigning and aligning existing course syllabi with the goals established by the workgroup” of the program focused on coursework.
If no other funds are required of the initiative, it would be a total spend of $45,000 to $60,000. U of M receives about $123 million in state appropriations, according to recent budget documents.
In a statement, Lee criticized the program as a use “taxpayer dollars” to fuel a “divisive, radical agenda.”
It was not immediately clear if the governor had correspondence with the U of M about its programming since it launched in August 2020. The university, like many public universities and other private universities that accept students on federally funded Pell Grants, has a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. U of M increased the focus after students and professors spoke out in the wake of the country’s racial reckoning sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black people killed by police.
“We welcome robust debate on college campuses, but taxpayer dollars should never be used to fuel a divisive, radical agenda,” Lee said in a statement to The Commercial Appeal, echoing the sentiments students made to Fox News. Lee’s statement was first reported by The Tennessee Star.
“The University of Memphis has informed my office that the initiative will not move forward,” Lee’s statement continued. “Ending this program was the right decision, and I thank the university for hearing our concerns.”
The governor’s office did not supply correspondence between Lee and the U of M and did not respond when asked what about the initiative was part of a “divisive, radical agenda.”
In response to follow-up inquiries requesting what concerns Lee had about U of M’s program, what he was told was canceled, and whether he believed academic freedom should be protected at Tennessee universities, Casey Black, spokesperson for the governor’s office, said U of M “informed our office that the grant program is no longer active. We don’t have anything further to add about a now-defunct program.”
News of the U of M program spread after it was reported early this year by national conservative news outlets Washington Free Beacon and Fox News. In the reports, an unnamed professor and three students criticized the program, as well as U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
The students identified themselves as part of the local chapter of Turning Point USA, which is a national conservative student group that publicly supports disinformation campaigns about COVID-19 and the 2020 election.
Turning Point USA organization bused 50 people to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, including a retired Pennsylvania firefighter who was charged with assaulting Capitol police officers, according to a court filing reported by Business Insider.
“This just proves that University of Memphis’ top priority is not academics, but instead it’s indoctrinating students with propaganda,” said Audra Lutrell on Fox News, which identified her as a U of M student with the student organization. “And if professors are bribed with taxpayer dollars to redesign their curriculum to focus on anti-racism or diversity and inclusion, these professors, it doesn’t make them woke, it doesn’t make them social justice warriors, they’re being bribed to do this.”
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Events by the Arizona-based group founded by conservative commentator Charlie Kirk have delivered “messages (that) were at times alarmist and patriotic, under the guise of a dire need to save America from the Biden administration and more broadly, what they viewed as a liberal agenda set on wrecking the U.S. Constitution,” according to the Arizona Republic.
Kirk has focused on young adults and higher education, creating a platform to report professors who “advance leftist propaganda,” the Republic reported, and has continued to shift focus toward K-12 schools and school boards.
The national coverage of the U of M’s programming appeared to conflate the initiative with a trend of republican-led legislation in Tennessee and across the country that prohibits certain race-related concepts from being taught in K-12 schools.
Labeled in many instances as a prohibition of teaching critical race theory, the Tennessee legislation impacts K-12 schools and not universities. Critical race theory is not taught in K-12 schools and is offered as part of some courses in higher education, where universities, both public and private, generally value and pursue academic freedom.
The three finalists for incoming U of M president were all questioned by the faculty representative on the university’s board of trustees about academic freedom.
Though the Tennessee law does not specify critical race theory as a prohibited topic, the academic theory has been politically manipulated as a phrase synonymous with any topic about race or racism. The academic theory is not analogous to all efforts of diversity, equity and inclusion, commonly referred to under the acronym of DEI across institutions.
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Incorporating information about identities and race, under the higher education term of DEI, has been a practice for many disciplines, encouraged and supported by national associations, explained U of M professor Amanda Nell Edgar.
Edgar, speaking not on behalf of the university but in her capacity as an associate professor of communication and film, specializes in issues of race and has long included them in her coursework.
“The thing we’re trying to do in the classroom is help students to answer the questions that they bring to us,” Edgar said, noting that before, during and after the summer of 2020, both Black and white students often have questions of race.
In her courses, these questions and thoughts surface when talking about how people perceive television shows, for example, whether for enjoyment, to “hate-watch” them or to have them on in the background.
If teaching “The Cosby Show,” for example, “it is pretty important to realize that the studies that were done about how audiences read ‘The Cosby Show’ shows that there was a really major difference in how Black audiences understood that show versus how white audiences understood that show.”
U of M, a university in a majority Black Shelby County, has a student body that is split fairly equally between nonwhite and white students: 34% of students are Black, 7% are Hispanic, 4.5% are Asian, 3.4% multi-racial and 45% white, according to recent enrollment data. Current President M. David Rudd has repeatedly stated the university’s mission includes a focus on access, one of the reasons he regularly gives when announcing U of M tuition.
Fox News suggested students were “paying for this” initiative with increased tuition.
Student tuition has increased four times in eight years, with the most recent 1.75% increase made to offset an elimination of online course fees that Rudd said prevented the U of M from attracting and retaining students.
In an interview about accomplishments of his tenure, Rudd pointed to closing disparities in academic achievement for Black men at U of M. Locally, community members have been critical of the university’s commitment to inclusion, a main point in the recent presidential search that produced incoming president Bill Hardgrave, provost at Auburn University who will lead the research university later in 2022.
Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at email@example.com or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino
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