Chancellor Donde Plowman and Student Government Association President Karmen Jones sat down together in early October to share an honest conversation about the state of diversity and inclusion on campus, what the university could do better, and what it means when we say “Vol is a Verb.” Below are excerpts from their conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity.
Chancellor Plowman: You and I have had many conversations since you became student body president. It’s been five months since the murder of George Floyd and the historic outpouring of protests and concern about that. Talk to me a little bit about how you’re feeling today about where we are.
Karmen Jones: This year in Knoxville is a little bit different. We address it as the two pandemics that are going on— COVID-19, but also racism has always been the other pandemic in the room. But at this moment, I’m just excited to see the continuation of all the work that students are doing. We’ve seen action happen on our campus in such a positive way.
Talking About Racism
During the summer, Plowman and her leadership council, which includes her cabinet as well as Jones and Graduate Student Senate President Austin Boyd, took part in a two-day retreat to reflect on issues of racism and discuss how to make meaningful change on campus.
Plowman: We all read the book How to Be an Antiracist. And then you participated in that retreat and heard people sharing and talking. What was that like for you as a student?
Jones: I think I went into it having misconceptions on what our university would do. But I’ll tell you, it was a moment where there was so much transparency on what the real issues were. For your cabinet to take two days to invite us into that space to have a facilitated conversation by professionals on diversity was really important. People were really transparent in that moment about “This is my privilege, this is the way that I’ve grown up, and here’s how I can change.” So I think we’re doing a good job in terms of growth as a university leadership.
Plowman: I remember one of the questions the facilitators asked us to talk about was “What is your first memory of race and being aware of race?” I was a little taken aback by how much everyone just poured out from their heart, honestly, their experiences. Tyvi [Small, vice chancellor for diversity and engagement] often says that we’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable. What does that mean to you?
Jones: That’s a phrase that he’s been using with students all the time. I’ve been using it, too. And the thing is, the topic of race, diversity, intersectionality— none of these topics are comfortable. And they’re not supposed to be. It means the world to me that people are willing to be put in this uncomfortable position where they have to do a lot of self-reflection; it also gives me a little bit of hope that you know here in Tennessee that we’re not meeting these stereotypes of what people think Tennessee should be; we’re actively trying hard to make it better here on our campus.
‘You Can’t Be What You Can’t See’
One of the university’s goals around diversity, equity, and inclusion is the recruitment and retention of Black faculty members.
Plowman: One of the challenges we have had here—and I’m trying to understand it better—is we have recruited phenomenal Black faculty…[but] we’ve struggled to keep some of them. How do we do a better job of retaining faculty so that our faculty looks like the population? How important is that to students, like to Black students thinking about coming here?
Jones: There’s a quote that continues to stay in my mind: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And a lot of times we have to find representation in these really small sections of the university. And that’s a little bit difficult to do for our students. I know that I’ve had some amazing professors being an English major, but the majority of them have been white. But that one Black woman that was my professor, Dr. [La Vinia Delois] Jennings, she was the one piece of representation that I had and it was just super important, because when it comes to being a scholar, you need that representation. You need someone to guide you along the way and to mentor you along the way. And so, thankfully, I’ve had Black women that have mentored me and have kind of provided that path for me and called me and checked in on me. It really does contribute, I think, to the mental health of a student as well as your scholarly success.
Vol Is a Verb
Last year, the Office of the Dean of Students launched the Vol is a Verb campaign as a collective call to action to work together as a campus community to help make sure everyone feels they matter and belong.
Plowman: We want to be a place where everyone matters and everyone belongs, right? If we were really doing that 100 percent, what are things that you would see happening here that aren’t happening here?
Jones: Well, the first thing is that we will work more on, of course, recruitment. We will see more students of color coming in once they truly feel like this is the place where they matter and belong to our campus. The second thing is we’ve had conversations about what that looks like in terms of policy reform and making sure that we cultivate that environment where scholars that are Black and Brown can be their best. Representation just has to be in every pocket in every sector of our university.
Plowman: Well you know, one thing I love about that, that phrase, everyone matters—everyone. It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone being against that. We all as human beings want to belong and want to matter. And we need to feel that. So I’m excited for the work that we need to continue to do in that area.
Jones: I want to ask you: What has this time been like for you leading as our chancellor? Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chancellor step up to the plate, you know, march with students and say, “I’m gonna be out there,” and really have our back like this. I’m really appreciative of you at this time. But what has that been like for you in this moment?
Plowman: I constantly think about my dad. What would my dad do? And he would say, “Do the right thing. Be smart. And keep your eye on the long-term goal.” And our long-term goal here is that everyone recognize that everyone’s life matters. And that that hasn’t always been the case. And so, for me, it is trying to engage people into “Let’s have the uncomfortable conversations.” And I think when we start doing that, then it feels like we’re making progress.
In communications to the Volunteer community, Plowman has laid out plans to build on the important work already being done on campus. This work includes diversity action plans recently completed by all units on campus, the review of the promotion and tenure process to revalue service done in the interest of advancing racial equity, strengthening efforts to recruit and retain students of color, and updating bias incident reporting protocols.
Hear more from Plowman and Jones’s discussion about diversity, antiracism, and being women in leadership roles.