Since its inception a century ago, Tennessee State University has constantly faced challenges. The road to 100 has been as rocky as that initial plot of barren land William J. Hale had to work with when he became the first president of Agricultural and Industrial State Normal College in 1912.
But Hale set the precedent early: The institution would never back down from a struggle for what they thought was right. Whether it was far-from-ideal funding, blatant discrimination, or even a threat to the school's existence, TSU persevered.
The school's story, however, is still being written. Marred by low graduation rates, decreased funding and problems with administrative oversight, TSU has faced new hurdles in recent years.
After being placed on warning by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in December 2010, the school made changes to appease the accreditation committee. A year later, a “cloud was lifted” from the campus, according to interim president Portia Shields, when the school received reaccreditation for the next decade.
But the future of TSU still hangs in the balance. This summer the Tennessee Board of Regents will begin the process of hiring a new president at TSU — a search that holds heavy implications for the historic institution.
A small but vocal group of detractors are calling for TSU to break from the TBR and conduct an independent search. Led by professor Ray Richardson and other faculty, the Save TSU Community Coalition has held several meetings and demonstrations to redirect the future of TSU.
At a recent rally by the United Campus Workers at the State Capitol, Richardson addressed a rowdy crowd of union protesters. And while he pointed out several grievances with TSU's current administration, the underlying theme of his speech was universal.
“We're not going away,” Richardson said in an impassioned tone. “We've been here, and we're going to be here.”
When the Second Morrill Act was passed in 1890, states were required to either not use race as a criteria for public universities or create equal institutions for African-Americans. The Tennessee legislature skirted the Morrill Act for years by enrolling a handful of students at Knoxville College.
In 1909, the state passed a General Education Bill, which called for four new “normal schools” in Tennessee — three for whites and the first state-funded all-black agricultural and industrial school. Immediately, African-American leaders across the state made pitches for the new school.
According to Dr. Evelyn Fancher's 1975 thesis Tennessee State University (1912-1974), TSU almost settled in Chattanooga. High school principal William J. Hale led an effort to bring the black school to the Scenic City. But late in the race, Nashville Globe newspaper editor Benjamin Carr and other black leaders secured $80,000 from Davidson County Court, outbidding Chattanooga by just $5,000.
For his efforts, Hale was named the first president of Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School — and he recruited a faculty of 12 teachers. They were tasked with teaching roughly 250 students in the school's first session during the summer of 1912.
The school and campus quickly expanded under Hale's guidance. After a decade, the school became a college.
“President Hale's skill at soliciting and managing funds for the support of the college became legendary,” Fancher wrote. “In the process of making miracles of growth occur on the campus, Dr. Hale developed his own unique managerial procedures.”
Tennessee A&I was a relevant, viable education option for black Tennesseans. Not only did it offer practical programming like agriculture classes, but Hale developed the teachers college and focused on a well-rounded educational experience.
When Hale left at the end of the 1943 school year, he was replaced by Dr. Walter Davis. In Davis' first speech at the school, he laid out specific goals for the burgeoning college. He vowed to develop the college into a university, expand the school's extracurriculars and educate the intellectual elite as well as the masses.
Most of those goals were met during his tenure. In 1951, the school received university status, and three days of formal celebration followed. Seven years later, SACS allowed black schools to receive accreditation — and Tennessee A&I was validated.
Fancher described TSU in the 1960s as being in the “midst of a social revolution from which it could not escape, and from which it did not wish to escape.” Students got involved early in the civil rights movement by participating in sit-ins at downtown Nashville lunch counters. “Black power” advocate Stokely Carmichael addressed the student body in 1967, and 1,200 students attended his speech.
“In the minds of the youth, 'black power' was needed to counteract what they seemed to have perceived to be omnipresent abuse by white power,” Fancher wrote.
Reports of some “militant” students rioting occurred in the late 1960s. At one point, dorms had bulletholes on them — and the football team organized a voluntary task force to guard the campus from vandalism.
“Tennessee State, the students as well as the instructors, were very concerned about the atmosphere [during the civil rights era],” Nashville civil rights leader Charles Kimbrough said. “You could even say you were part of a school that was progressive.”
Along with demonstrations in the 1960s, TSU was also experiencing a boost in national exposure. Kimbrough recalled being in class with TSU basketball star Dick Barnett, who would later go on to NBA fame.
“There was a lot of pride in just being a TSU student and doing the best you could,” Kimbrough said.
In addition to the basketball team's three national championships in the 1950s, TSU's marching band garnered the school national exposure on television. The Aristocrat of Bands was invited to several NFL games in the late 1950s and 1960s, including the 1963 NFL championship game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. (The weather was so cold that day, TSU marchers dipped their horns in anti-freeze before their performance.)
International exposure came on the heels — or soles — of sprinter Wilma Rudolph's three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Discovered as a young athlete in Clarksville by Tigerbelles head coach Ed Temple, Rudolph catapulted TSU's track program into the spotlight. Another star athlete in the 1960 Olympics was boxer Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, who visited TSU and Coach Temple in 1963. (Pictured on the cover of this issue.)
While many TSU students were active in campaigning for racial equality, desegregation brought a new set of challenges for the school. Historically black colleges and universities were tasked with maintaining their historic identity, while also diversifying the student body.
In 1968, the University of Tennessee announced the expansion of their Nashville extension campus, which had been primarily for night classes. Rita Geier, a 23-year-old faculty member at TSU, sued the state months later over concern the move would hinder desegregation efforts at TSU.
The court eventually ruled that Tennessee was enforcing a “dual system” of segregated higher education and that a new UT-Nashville campus wasn't the answer. Instead, the plaintiffs proposed that UT-Nashville fold into TSU. A monthlong hearing, led by TSU’s president, Dr. Frederick Humphries, convinced the federal court that the merger would be an appropriate action.
The new UT-N campus was eventually named after TSU's lawyer in the case, former Sen. Avon Williams. Geier v. Tennessee continued for nearly 40 years before the case was dismissed in 2006, when the court finally ruled the “dual system” of education was no longer in effect.
But even now, long after the changes wrought by Geier's lawsuit, discussions about TSU's future continue.
On a quiet January night this year, roughly 30 individuals gathered in the back room of Corinthian Baptist Church — only two blocks from TSU. Members of the community, including Kimbrough, Sen. Thelma Harper and the Rev. Enoch Fuzz, were there to hear Humphries speak once more.
Humphries, who helped fend off the move to expand UT-N, was introduced by Richardson as the “greatest of the great.”
His talk revolved around the principle of American exceptionalism — the notion that “we believe nothing is beyond the capability of getting things done in America.”
Humphries pointed out the influx of Asians into American universities — particularly in the fields of science. In Florida, 60 percent of doctoral degrees are earned by international students — and corporations hired roughly 140,000 workers from China and India, Humphries said.
He argued that American minorities need to step up and fill the jobs that are currently going to immigrants — and that HBCUs should help facilitate the process.
“We've got to educate ... use our own resources,” Humphries said. “And our biggest untapped human resource is in the black and Hispanic community. ... If we can't get that done, we have an uncertain future.”
In TSU’s academic “reorganization” in 2011, physics was one of the majors slashed by Shields due to small enrollment numbers. Several classes had only one student, and the school graduated only 23 physics majors over a decade.
And while Humphries didn't address TSU directly, he said schools should “find out what we have to do to make [the program] better, not kill it.”
“American exceptionalism is tied to the environment of historically black colleges,” Humphries said.
He pointed to cases of Texas Southern University and Mississippi Valley State University — which have faced proposals of reorganization in recent years.
“These things we thought were settled, aren't settled,” Humphries told the small crowd at the church.
Dr. Portia Shields carefully worked her way through a crowd at the Gentry Center during last month's men's basketball game against Murray State. Dressed head to toe in Tiger paraphernalia, including blue-and-white pom-poms in almost every pocket, she made her way to the press row for a radio interview.
The game was one of the most-attended non-graduation events in Gentry Center history, second only to a Stevie Wonder concert in 1980. The Aristocrat of Bands blasted its way through TSU's fight song with a chorus of singers:
I'm so glad, I go to TSU/I'm so glad, I go to TSU/I'm so glad, I go to TSU/Singing glory Hallelujah, I'm so glad.
It was a moment that Shields said illustrates a shift she's noticed over her 18 months as TSU president — a shift toward unity. And that unity, according to Shields, is what helped the school regain SACS reaccreditation in December.
“Pulling the people together for SACS ... you can have all the programs you want, but if you don't have the accreditation, you don't have anything,” Shields said, when asked about her biggest accomplishments at TSU.
Shields was tasked with reaccreditation when she took over the interim presidency in December 2010. But in addition to patching up administrative issues that SACS warned the school about, Shields said she tried to change the culture and mystique of a guarded executive administration.
“I [just tried] to bring people together around conversations of, 'What do you think we can do to improve this place?’ ” Shields said. “ ‘Tell us what to do and we will do it.’ ”
In addition to opening her office up to student concerns, she also instituted “family meetings” with students and faculty members to voice their opinions.
But not everyone has been pleased with Shields' tenure at TSU. The Save TSU Committee, headed by Richardson and other TSU professors, has loudly voiced opposition to some of Shields' actions.
One of their main grievances involves Shields' “reorganization” of academic programs, which included cutting Africana studies and the aforementioned physics program.
“For an HBCU to have worked hard to get Africana studies, then to have somebody who is an interim president to destroy it is unacceptable,” Richardson said during his speech at the state rally. “We have an interim president who has made decisions no permanent president ever made.”
Shields told The City Paper that she may have moved too quickly in making some
of those choices, but still stood behind her decisions.
“I evaluate myself every day, and yes, I have made mistakes. I made mistakes in sometimes being a bit impetuous,” Shields said. “They call me Madame Quick because we made changes quickly. I was aware that my time at TSU was not going to be long enough to convince everyone, but I did listen to everyone.”
The next chapter of TSU history will be determined by who is chosen to lead the university. The Tennessee Board of Regents will begin a search in May and hopes to have a president named by the end of October. The new president will be expected to begin in January 2013. Shields, who is not eligible to be a candidate for the presidency, laid out some advice for the TBR and the selection committee.
“I think the [TBR Chancellor John Morgan] said it best when he talked about someone with leadership experience ... and the ability to inspire students first, then faculty and staff, and to inspire them to go for excellence,” Shields said.
“This person is going to be able to show a different outcome to change the culture ... to make the culture less resistant to change.”
Shields also said the new TSU president will have to continue public relations efforts to get the community involved in and aware of the good things happening on campus. Kimbrough, who still lives in Nashville, said he hopes the school will hire a president who understands the historical significance of the school.
“The president needs to know the background of TSU — that it had a mission and still has a mission,” he said. “We can not afford to relax and think that we can forget the mission of Tennessee State. ... We're an HBCU. That needs to be kept in mind.”