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Minority Enrollment Continues to Rise at University of Tennessee

Minority Enrollment Continues to Rise at University of Tennessee


Minority enrollment continues to rise at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus, where one of every 10 entering freshmen this fall is Black and the freshman class rates as the most ethnically diverse in school history.

Heavy recruitment in Memphis and Nashville, which have the state’s largest African-American populations, targeted scholarships and on-campus support to keep minorities in school are changing a campus still under a desegregation watch from a 1968 lawsuit.

Five years ago, Black students railed against a perception of racism at UT-Knoxville — graffiti on a dorm wall, a rebel flag painted on a large rock that’s a kind of campus bulletin board and a misguided student art project of hanging nooses. Public forums were held to soothe tensions and improve understanding.

Then in 2002, six White fraternity members were caught partying in “blackface” at an off-campus bar. The university denounced the action.

“I don’t want to call that a myth, but I think we are starting to knock down some of those barriers that students used to say, ‘Knoxville is not a friendly place to be,”’ said Richard Bayer, dean of enrollment services.

“I think you can see everywhere you go on our campus that there is a true commitment to diversity. And as we continue to increase (minority enrollment), even though modest in numbers, … that translates to a good feeling that we are serious about what we are doing,” he said.

The numbers suggest the trend is taking hold. Nearly 8 percent of the 19,500 undergraduates at UT-Knoxville in 2004 were Black, up from 5 percent in 1997. Figures for 2005 aren’t yet in.

Still, Blacks make up 16 percent of the state’s population.

About 700 of the nearly 4,200 freshmen who arrived at UT’s 26,000-student (graduate and undergraduate) Knoxville campus last week are minorities. That’s 16.5 percent of the freshman class, up from 14.8 percent last year.

About 430 of those new freshmen are Black or 10.3 percent of the class, compared to 321 students or 9 percent last year. The Black percentage in 2003 was 7.4 percent.

“It is a real increase in head count and percentages, and it has been trending upwards every year since 1999,” Bayer said.

There also are about 138 Asians and 78 Hispanics in this year’s freshman class.

Lottery-funded HOPE scholarships are playing a role. But a 2001 consent decree in Rita Sanders Geier’s 1968 lawsuit, which accused the state of perpetuating a dual system of higher education for Blacks and Whites, may be doing more for minorities.

Under that accord, which comes up for review in 2006, the state was required to spend $75 million over 10 years to make amends.

While much has gone to historically Black Tennessee State University in Nashville, UT has used its “Geier money” to put recruiting offices in Memphis and Nashville, provide special scholarships and services to Black students and augment salaries to attract Black faculty and administrators.

“The concern that we have is that the support that the Geier consent decree mandated from the state has driven a lot of the progress that we have made,” said Theotis Robinson, vice president for equity and one of UT’s highest ranking Black administrators.

“You know what that tells me?” said Nashville attorney George Barrett, who brought the Geier lawsuit. “It tells me they are not ready to fly on their own, not ready to leave the nest.”

Associated Press

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