The University of Tennessee says it wants to create an inclusive environment for students — but still has some work to do to get there.
The university system is holding a statewide diversity summit for its employees Wednesday, with the hopes of making diversity a higher priority.
Across UT’s four campuses, 19.3 percent of the undergraduate student body was a racial minority in 2014. That number has increased in recent years, and UT president Joe DiPietro says raising that number is part of the system's goal. But he says the issue of diversity is less about labels and more about embracing people from different backgrounds.
DiPietro, who grew up in a small rural town in Illinois, says one of his formative moments in college was a learning experience with his roommate.
“He said to me, 'Hey, let’s go to Green Street and get a bagel,' " DiPietro says, "and honestly I said to him: 'What is a bagel?’ ”
Another example: When he was professor teaching agriculture classes, he realized some students didn't understand basic vocabulary of the field because they didn't grow up on farms. “That was eye-opening to me,” he says. “It’s more than what just traditionally people think of as racial diversity, sexual orientation.”
Of course, this kind of cultural diversity is harder to quantify. But DiPietro says the system is beginning to do this: UT chancellors are now expected to report on how they’re growing diversity, and the university might start surveying students about their perceptions of inclusiveness on campus.
"By and large, we're much better today than we were four years ago," he says. "But we need to stay focused and we need to be even more inclusive."