Once-Barred Student Emerges as UT Presidential Candidate
Dr. Kenneth Olden couldn’t get into the University of Tennessee when he graduated from high school in the 1950s because of the color of his skin.
Today, a little less than 50 years later, UT is getting another chance.
Olden, who rose from poverty to become a highly regarded research scientist and the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is seeking to become UT’s next president.
But maybe it’s not so much UT’s getting another chance as it is Olden giving something back to the school that launched him on a career path he never dreamed of — even though the school wouldn’t even let him in the class.
Olden, 65, and preparing to leave the NIEHS director’s office to return full-time to his lab, said he has declined the overtures of other schools but had to consider UT.
He said he feels an obligation.
Olden is one of 26 candidates thus far who either accepted a nomination to become UT’s next president or outright applied for the job, which has been held by interim UT President Dr. Joe Johnson since Dr. John Shumaker’s resignation last summer.
“My dad was a farmer,” Olden said. “We were sharecroppers a large part of our lives, and then my dad and my uncle pooled their money and bought a farm.”
Olden and his siblings attended a one-room school in Allen’s Chapel and then went to an all-Black Tanner High School.
Olden used part-time jobs and a small scholarship to pay his way through Knoxville College. UT wasn’t an option.
“An African American could not go to UT when I graduated from high school,” he said. Olden said he’s not bitter about not being able to attend UT.
“Going to Knoxville College was important. I was given a chance because someone thought I had a good mind,” he said.
In his senior year at Knoxville, Olden was invited to take part in a UT-Oak Ridge research project funded by what was then the Atomic Energy Commission. The program opened his eyes to research, and he decided not to become a doctor, but went on to earn a master’s degree from Michigan, and a doctorate in cell biology and biochemistry from Temple University.
Olden, who spent much of his professional life doing cancer-related research, said it was the best decision he ever made.
After earning his doctorate, he taught at Harvard, did research at the National Cancer Institute and was chairman of the Department of Oncology at Howard University Medical School from 1985-1991. In 1991, Olden became the first Black to head one of the 18 National Institutes of Health when he was named director of the NIEHS.
— Associated Press
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