Diverse Learning

December 31st, 2015

Last week, I was clicking around in the University of Tennessee’s Annual Report to the General Assembly and a few things jumped out.

Across the state, UT had about a five billion dollar economic impact in the 2014 fiscal year, created or contributed to some 75,000 jobs, and was involved in $436 million worth of research and sponsored projects this fiscal year.

Right here, the UT Health Science Center accounts for 5.6 percent of the total personal income earned in the Memphis area, planting about $2 billion every year in our financial landscape. 

And they did that with the lowest percentage increase in tuition in more than 30 years.

I thought I’d share that with you since what you’ve been reading and seeing about UT the last few weeks would indicate that the most important thing happening on campus was how they theme their department parties, or what pronouns they use to address each other, or whether or not students should keep the subject of sex to themselves, or whether or not diversity is worthy of attention, or just how many “heads will roll.”

Seems that those are the things that the aforementioned Tennessee General Assembly will use to determine whether or not the university’s funding gets cut, or, more accurately, cut even more.


As published in The Memphis Daily News, January 1, 2016, and in The Memphis News, January 2-8, 2016

(photo: The Torchbearer statue at UT Knoxville, you have to wonder if the folks in Nashville funding public institutions of higher learning across the state can see the light.)



The black kid across the hall came from Pearl in Nashville and had a full-ride scholarship. All I knew about Pearl was that they’d bounced Memphis Treadwell out of the gym the year before to go 31 and 0 and win the state basketball championship. So the kid must be a baller, right?

The Taiwanese kid across the aisle had a lot of trouble with English and had to keep asking the professor to repeat himself. If you can’t speak the language you won’t last a week, right?

I was a brand new freshman, and I had a lot to learn.

The black kid from Nashville had a scholarship all right, academic, and his best moves were up and down the periodic table. His assigned roommate was a white kid from Baltimore struggling to stay in college, and a member of the Kappa Alpha Order – a fraternity whose biggest social event was Old South Week. Yet, what broke out in that dorm room was raging friendship. Nashville got Baltimore through several subjects, and Baltimore got Nashville through campus doors figuratively and literally closed in 1967.

They learned. I learned.

The Taiwanese kid took pity on the klutz at the desk across from him, helping me recalibrate the slide rule I kept dropping, helping me navigate the formulaic sea the professor kept splashing across the classroom’s blackboards. He got me through engineering science and I got him through the menu board at the Smoky Mountain Market. Math and smiles are international languages.

He learned. I learned.

The University of Tennessee taught me far more than the five majors I wandered in and out of in my four years. Friendship. Risk and reward. Responsibility. Finance. Personal hygiene. Trust. Success and failure. Joy and heartbreak. Love and betrayal. Doubt and discovery. Highs and hangovers. Lows and losses. Good and bad decisions and all kinds of people.

And all of that part and parcel of just one football weekend beginning with a test on Friday and ending with a paper due on Monday.

College is about finding out as much as you can about yourself by finding out as much as you can about everything and using what you learn to jumpstart the rest of your life.

That should be, by definition, as diverse an experience as possible. All cultures explored. All questions asked. All doors open.

It shouldn’t be shaped or defined by something silly some university administrator wrote in an email, nor should it be threatened or limited by legislators who would elevate the silly to the serious for political gain.

We don’t want the legislature setting policy in our public universities any more than we want a freshman in poli-sci class setting our tax rates. Let the duly appointed and vetted boards and trustees of these institutions do their serious jobs.

Our students have a lot to learn, and it would be silly and shortsighted to put close-minded politics in their way.

I’m a Memphian, and I’m wide open to diversity.



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