Dr. James A. Hefner managed major changes at TSU as a result of the Geier Consent Decree.
In 1991 Hefner was named president of Tennessee’s only historically black public university. Hefner had served as president of Mississippi’s largest black public university, Jackson State for the previous seven years.
“When I was appointed president I inherited mandates as a result of the consent decree,” Hefner explained from Atlanta, Georgia where he is serving as Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Clark Atlanta University. “We had a mandate to integrate the university at a level where the student body would be 50 percent white and 50 percent black.”
Hefner was also tasked with integrating the TSU faculty.
“The federal mandate also called for us to increase the percentage of white faculty at TSU to 51 percent. The court had reached its decision as a result of a lawsuit brought by some very concerned faculty members at TSU.”
In 1968 TSU faculty members led by Rita Sanders Geier filed a lawsuit to enjoin the University of Tennessee from expanding its campus and academic offerings in Nashville.
“UT had a downtown campus which was almost entirely white,” Hefner said. “TSU faculty felt the UT campus was an infringement on TSU’s ability to grow and move forward.”
At the same time the state appropriated over $112 million to build up TSU.
“I inherited the money to transform TSU beyond what it was. Because I had been president of Jackson State and had encountered challenges there I had the experience and had gained the expertise to meet the challenge,” Hefner said.
When the court announced that the UT-Nashville campus would be absorbed by TSU there was a new set of variables that had to be addressed. While many white faculty and students at UT-Nashville were unhappy about the decision Hefner explained that he too had some trepidation about the downtown UT campus.
“I was concerned that the downtown campus which almost entirely white and the main campus was black. I wanted to integrate both campuses. It was difficult for some of the white faculty to accept that they had been absorbed by TSU and some left. As for those who stayed, I felt I needed to create a situation that was fair to all students and employees. Once I began integrating both campuses the decision was met by consternation by some white faculty members. I impressed upon them that TSU was one school not two. I insisted that we were one community and that I would treat everyone fairly and, we would meet the mandates set by the federal government.”
At the same time black enrollment at the most integrated white college topped off to 11 percent but TSU was told to have an equal 50-50 black/white student ratio.
“There were two scholarship programs,” recalled Hefner. “The state offered white students with a C+ grade point average full scholarships to TSU,” recalled Hefner. “By contrast black students had to have a B average or above. That decision was not met kindly by the black community. We also began an aggressive recruitment effort to attract black and white students.”
The assertive efforts paid off but, to the dismay of the president and TSU administrators, African-American enrollment swamped that of white students.
“Our overall number of white students increased but not nearly at the rate of black students,” said Hefner. “Even though white students with a C+ average would get a full scholarship to attend TSU they just weren’t interested in attending the school. At the end of every year we had money for white students left over and as the new campus took shape more and more black students enrolled. Black students came to us en masse. Although there was an absolute increase in the number of black and white students enrolling in TSU the percentage of white students began to decline which was frowned upon by the state even though we did everything to live up to the mandate. I felt that I had addressed the issues in a way that was fair-minded and appropriate and had to recognize that white students were voting with their feet. We couldn’t make them enroll at TSU.”
The same was true for white faculty.
“We were also attracting more black faculty that white. After a while it was clear to the state that we had done everything we could to follow the mandate but people behaved differently,” said Hefner. “Eventually the decree was settled and it was ruled that quotas were not appropriate.”
As the recruitment process was in full gear so was the physical transformation of both the main and downtown campuses.
“I was able to oversee construction of eight new buildings,” recalled Hefner. We also renovated every building on both campuses. The quality of the work was on par to that done at any other school in the system. We also added green space, parkways and fountains. There was a metamorphosis.”
While Dr. Hefner worked diligently to remake the campus he was also working to change the community’s impression of TSU.
“I wanted to rebrand TSU. The school had a reputation that was earned as a great athletic institution but I wanted TSU to be known as a great academic institution also. We purposely recruited the best and brightest students to TSU. As a result for 11 straight years TSU was one of USA Today’s 100 Best Colleges in America. I also brought in two honor societies white schools had on their campus for decades, Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Eta Sigma”
Hefner also discussed the state of black colleges today and in the future as TSU and all historically black universities begin their second century of service to the country.
“The increasing costs of higher education pose a problem for black families and also black universities which are tuition driven. Since black colleges have small endowments they cannot offer as many scholarships. We have traditionally relied on financial aid. If not for federal support of public black colleges there would be fewer today. We are faced with low endowments, low Alumni giving and low-income families who cannot pay full tuition. That challenge is not new. However, we have found ways and will continue to find ways to send our children to college.”