Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

College Conversations


As a college and institution of higher learning, it is our mission to promote intellectual inquiry and effective civic engagement within the context of respect for diversity. Our ability to educate is one tool for making change in the world. We can demand change in our community, but first, we have to educate our community on why that change is necessary.

In 2020, we launched our College Conversations series to highlight research by faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences that aligns with our initiatives to address racism and encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion in all its forms.

Our Allyship and Antiracism series featured faculty whose research focused on identifying racism and topics related to allyship and antiracism. The Spotlight on Diversity series featured diversity initiatives in a variety of disciplines in our college.

We continue our College Conversation series for the 2022-23 academic year and will host a lecture each semester.

College Conversations: The Landscape of Housing Access and Affordability

Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

Accessible and affordable housing is hard to come by across the United States. In her presentation, Stephanie Casey Pierce, assistant professor of public policy and administration in the UT Department of Political Science, shared her research on foreclosures and evictions. Pierce discussed the current landscape of housing access and affordability in the United States and in Knoxville.

Click here to watch the recording of Professor Pierce’s presentation


College Conversations: Accessing the Vote

Tuesday, November 15, 2022 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

Accessibility to the electoral process is integral to ensuring that every American can exercise their right to vote, but many people still face disproportionate challenges to participate in elections due to health, age, race, and gender.

In her presentation, Kirsten Widner, assistant professor in the UT Department of Political Science, focused on current voting access issues we face as a society. She will share her research on laws and policies that affect marginalized groups. Professor Widner will also discuss the recent US Supreme Court case on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Click here to watch a recording of Professor Widner’s presentation.

College Conversations: Spotlight on Diversity Series

Unlearning Racism in Geoscience
Thursday, January 27, 2022 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

Unlearning Racism in Geoscience, URGE, is a community-wide program funded by the National Science Foundation to help geoscientists unlearn racism and improve accessibility, justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion. Join us Jan. 27 to learn about the URGE curriculum in the UT Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 

Speaker: Annette Engel, Jones Professor of Aqueous Geochemistry

Angie Batey, associate dean of diversity and inclusion, College of Arts and Sciences, will moderate the discussion.

View the recording and transcript online.

BIPOC Plays & Playwrights
Thursday, February 24, 2022 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

The UT Department of Theatre has several diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to highlight Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) plays and playwrights, including a special topics course taught in fall 2020 that is now a regular offering. Join us February 24 to learn about these initiatives and a new play opening in March – Blood at the Root – which is inspired by the true story of the Jena 6. 

Speaker: Tracey Copeland Halter, lecturer of acting

Angie Batey, associate dean of diversity and inclusion, College of Arts and Sciences, will moderate the discussion.

View the recording and transcript online.

Race, Gender, and Political Representation
Thursday, March 24, 2022 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

March is Women’s History Month and our March Spotlight on Diversity is Black Feminism. Professor Widner will present her award-winning research on the unique representation women of color bring when they are elected to public office and will highlight the crucial role Black women play in promoting the interests of marginalized communities.

Kirsten Widner, assistant professor, UT Department of Political Science

Angie Batey, associate dean of diversity and inclusion, College of Arts and Sciences, will moderate the discussion.

View the recording and transcript online.

Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage
Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In this, our final College Conversations Spotlight on Diversity for the spring semester, we will learn about the work faculty and staff in the UT Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures are doing to highlight Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage and experiences.

Yen-Chen Hao, associate professor of Chinese

Dan Wang, distinguished lecturer of Chinese

Angie Batey, associate dean of diversity and inclusion, College of Arts and Sciences, will moderate the discussion.

View the recording and transcript online.

Religion, Race, and Ethnicity
Thursday, August 26, 2021 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

Religion, race, and ethnicity continue to play a significant role on the national and international stage. Join us for a discussion of the intersection of these topics today – in and outside our classrooms.


  • Larry Perry, assistant professor of religious studies
  • David Kline, lecturer of religious studies
  • Helene Sinnreich, associate professor and director of The Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies

Angie Batey, associate dean of diversity and inclusion, College of Arts and Sciences, will moderate the discussion.

Nuclear Physics in Eastern TN
Thursday, September 23, 2021 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

The Nuclear Physics in Eastern TN (NPET) Fellowship is a virtual undergraduate internship program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Mentored by UT professors and ORNL scientists, students will be able to make contributions to leading research in neutrino physics, quantum information sciences, nuclear astrophysics, and more. Students will gain valuable skills needed for a successful career in STEM fields.

The program is designed to increase diversity in physics. Program mentors believe the teams required to solve the nation’s most pressing science challenges are those that bring together a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.

Nadia Fomin, associate professor in the UT Department of Physics will discuss the program’s roots and its impact on diversity in the field of physics. 

UT STEM Alliance
Thursday, October 28, 2021 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

The  UT STEM Alliance was a  part of the South East Alliance for Persons with Disabilities in STEM (SEAPD-STEM) program, a network of 21 education institutions in the southeastern US and Washington, DC, with a goal to significantly advance a collaborative approach to improve the success of students with disabilities in the STEM disciplines.

This Alliance, based at Auburn University, was funded by the National Science Foundation INCLUDES  program (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science). Starting  in January 2017,  the program provided scholarship funds to its students and also held regular meetings on professional development topics, such as careers, resume writing, mentorship, graduate schools, and internships.  The alliance expanded nationally to the Alliance of Students with Disabilities for Inclusion, Networking and Transition Opportunities in STEM, or TAPDINTO-STEM, with a new NSF INCLUDES grant. 

At UT, the new alliance activities will begin in January 2022. Presenters will discuss past activities of the UT STEM Alliance and new plans when the grant resumes in January. They will also share opportunities and programs to promote an inclusive environment through the UT Student Disabilities Services.

Suzanne Lenhart, Professor of Mathematics

David Ndiaye, Director of UT Disability Services

Alex McCorkel, UT student

Allyship & Antiracism

College Conversations: Allyship and Antiracism Series

Insurrection at the Capitol: A Historical Context
Thursday, Jan. 28, 5:30 p.m. via Zoom

January 6, 2021, Congress was supposed to undertake a symbolic ritual, but it will long be remembered as a day of insurrection, protest, and sedition. How did we get here and how do we move forward? Richard Pacelle, professor and head of the UT Department of Political Science, will discuss the insurrection at the US Capitol and provide a framework for understanding what happened. He will discuss how we got here, what the insurrection means, and what prospects we have to unify our county.

Richard Pacelle is professor and head of the UT Department of Political Science. His teaching and research interests are in the field of American politics with a focus on public law and the Supreme Court. Pacelle is the author of five books and several articles and book chapters, including Decision Making by the Modern Supreme Court (2011), and The Supreme Court in a Separation of Powers System (2015). He is working on a book manuscript on the evolution of issues in the Supreme Court.

The Office of Multicultural Student Life, Black History Month Planning Committee, and College of Arts and Sciences invites you to attend the Fourth Annual Celebration of Black Excellence Thursday, February 25, 2021. This virtual celebratory event honors the culture, legacy, and accomplishments of the Black community. 

David Mills, director of health sciences, government relations and advocacy for UT will present “The Refiners Fire: UT in The 70’s and 80’s,” as the keynote address followed by a live audience Q&A session. Performances and short orations will also be given by members of our Volunteer family.

David C. MillsDavid Mills is the director of health sciences, government relations and advocacy for UT. He studied Afro-American studies, history, and political science at UT. Mills is one of 15 children born into a family of strong, active faith. He was elected to political office at 25 and has served as a consultant for the Iowa Health Information Network, Nemours Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children, Vanderbilt University, and Tennessee State Government. Mills is the author of essays, two plays, and a book, Unholy: The Slaves Bible. He is completing his second book, Madame Speaker: The Women of the Tennessee General Assembly.

People Power: The Work of Public Sentiment
Thursday, April 29, 5:30 PM via Zoom

Photo by Element5 Digital on UnsplashPollsters are wringing their hands because their predictions of the 2020 US election outcomes were so far off the mark—just as they did in the aftermath of the election of 2016. The landslides for the left did not materialize in 2020, and the polls in their hundreds misjudged the extent of support for conservative candidates and conservative ideas. Now, we are trying to understand the sentiment that worked up individuals enough to create a mob that rushed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

In her presentation, Professor Thalos will take up questions of how to conceptualize, and subsequently to measure, public sentiment. Is there such a thing as public opinion, or something worthy of the name, that stands still long enough to be susceptible of measurement? And if there is, what does it matter that we actually take its measure?

Mariam Thalos, professor and head of the UT Department of Philosophy, joined the UT faculty in 2018. Her research focus is on foundational questions in the sciences, especially the physical, social, and decisional sciences, as well as on the relations among the sciences. She is the author of numerous articles and two books, Without Hierarchy: The Scale Freedom of the Universe (Oxford, 2013), and A Social Theory of Freedom (Routledge, 2016). She is a former fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Australian National University, the Tanner Humanities Center, the University of Sydney Center for Foundations of Science, and the Institute of Philosophy, University of London.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Police Power, Racial Terror, and the Violence of Reform 

tyler wallTyler Wall, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology

Ongoing protests against racist police violence amid a global pandemic are leading to important debates about the role and function of the police in our society. Many protestors are calling for policy changes that demand the defunding of the police in favor of more robust social programs and wider access to public goods. In his presentation, Tyler Wall, assistant professor of sociology, places police power within a wider context of historical cycles of violence and reform and the current legitimacy crisis of US policing. He examines how police power is inseparable from the structures that govern and reproduce racial capitalist society. What emerges from this discussion is an argument about how typical liberal reforms are not only destined to fail but further entrench and normalize racist state violence. Reform, then, becomes the “pie in the sky” while abolition and its related demand to defund police becomes the most logical, practical, and necessary response to the contemporary police crisis.

Embattled Names, Racialized Memories, and Wounded Places

alderman-fergusonDerek Alderman, Professor and Interim Head, UT Department of Geography
Gregg Suzanne Ferguson, West Virginia State University & Mothers of Diversity America

As of late we have seen growing calls from activists and communities to remove the names of racist historical figures from the names of streets, parks, schools, university campus buildings and other spaces. Often lost on many members of the public, especially opponents to these changes, is the larger historical relationship between these valorized names and the physical, structural, and symbolic violence of white supremacy—realized both in the past and the present. To put these ongoing struggles in context, Alderman will discuss the power of commemorative place names and the complex role they play in the memory-work of antiracism and the politics of planning more socially just landscapes. Ferguson, a guest scholar-activist, will describe her own efforts to rename a Stonewall Jackson Middle School and the results of her dissertation, which documented the harmful, wounding effects of white supremacist and Confederate names on students and teachers of color.

The Life and Legacy of John Lewis

Shalya NunnallyShayla Nunnally, Professor of Political Science and Chair of Africana Studies Program

Congressman John Lewis lived his life dedicated to serving others in the larger interest of the public good and in the promotion of civil rights. As a young activist, he was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and represented some of the sentiments of Black youth, who felt that African Americans’ civil rights could not be achieved gradually, as they perceived to be the course of action on behalf of more senior civil rights leaders. Rather, through direct action, he and other African American youth called attention to the immediate need for liberty, justice, and equality for all, regardless of race.

Getting into “good trouble,” as he called it, manifested into peaceful, civil disobedience to protest the inequality of Jim Crow laws in the American South. Through his and others’ protests in the violent space where they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, America saw the depths of white Southerners’ opposition to African Americans’ quest for equality. Seeing this violence also prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to encourage the US Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

With an early-lifetime history of active leadership and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, once elected to public office, Rep. John Lewis continued a legacy of promoting equality for all, through pressing formal political institutions to function according to democratic principles. Accounting for Lewis’ activism, Professor Nunnally will relate and discuss contemporary forms of activism to the current struggle for democratic inclusion on behalf of black Americans and others.

Race, Family Structure, and Poverty: Towards a Racial Stratification Approach

deadric williamsDeadric Williams, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology

Family structure remains a dominant explanation for understanding racial inequality in poverty. Yet, empirical studies show family structure fail to fully account for this association, which is due largely to the assumptions undergirding this line of reasoning. Conventional racial inequality in poverty research follows epistemologies that obscure racial domination and oppression by (a) highlighting the racial gap in poverty without conceptualizing and historicizing the social construction of race, (b) theorizing family structure as race-neutral to explain racial inequality, and (c) employing data analyses in ways that position White Americans as the standard against which people of color are measured.

Professor Deadric Williams will present racial stratification as an alternative perspective to emphasize the social construction of race and how race contributes to the unequal distribution of resources. To illustrate the link between racial stratification and poverty, he will present a conceptual model that begins with connecting racism (as structure and ideology) to the creation of racialized status (superordinate vs. subordinate) groups.

Williams will posit the maintenance of inequality among racialized status groups requires three broad mechanisms:

  1. The racialized state (politics/policies)
  2. Racial ideologies (nonracial explanations for why racial inequality exist)
  3. Whiteness as property (spatial inequality)

He will conclude that these mechanisms not only reinforce the racial order but also maintain the disproportionate amount of Black and Hispanic families in poverty. Williams will urge scholars to theorize racial stratification to understand how, and in what ways, the manifestation of racism maintains racial inequality in poverty.

From White Tears to Social Transformation: Antiracism Beyond Guilt

Kirsten Gonzalez & Patrick GrzankaKirsten Gonzalez, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
Patrick Grzanka, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology

The Uprisings of 2020 have brought many issues to the forefront of the national conversation on race. The emotions of White antiracism—guilt, shame, despair, anger—are particularly contentious concepts in racial justice movements insomuch as White people’s feelings may advance or undermine efforts to dismantle White supremacy.

Drawing on interdisciplinary perspectives from critical, multicultural psychology and sociology, Professors Patrick Grzanka and Kirsten Gonzalez will discuss their work on White racial emotions and allyship to underscore the importance of emotions in antiracist work. Rather than center White people’s feelings and subjectivities, they suggest that White guilt and associated forms of affect have both limits and possibilities for promoting social transformation.

If White people are to contribute productively and non-harmfully to racial justice movements, then careful examination of the causes and consequences of White racial emotions is essential to ensure that White people move beyond tears and guilt and toward the ongoing practice of racial consciousness and social action.

Why, When, and How Implicit Bias Matters

michael olsonMichael Olson, Professor, Department of Psychology

Implicit bias has lost conceptual clarity as it has become a buzz term in today’s discourse. The relevance of implicit bias to current events has also been called into question in the context of increased awareness of more blatant forms of racism. In his presentation, Olson will clarify and situate the concept of implicit bias within a dual-process social cognitive framework. In doing so, he will discuss how it forms and changes, affects perceptions, judgments, and behavior (including intentional acts of discrimination), and how its impacts can be mitigated in interpersonal and organizational contexts.

Scientific Racism: Historical Roots and Contemporary Manifestations

nora berenstainNora Berenstain, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy

Science has long colluded with white supremacy and colonialism to produce allegedly “evidence-based” justifications for racial oppression. Professor Nora Berenstain will trace historical lineages of scientific racism from early forms, such as craniometry and anthropometry, to more contemporary manifestation, such as genetic accounts of biological racial differences.

Whereas early race science was used to justify slavery as natural and even moral, contemporary race science works to mask the effects of racism on people of color by construing racial health inequalities as inevitable disparities rooted in biology. Contrary to popular belief, these theories have often been produced within mainstream institutions of higher education, rather than at the fringes of society. Indeed, racist theories have often been at the center of the discipline of philosophy rather than at its margins.

As a philosopher, Berenstain will address her discipline’s role in the production of theories that justify and maintain social and political structures of colonial white supremacy. Berenstain will introduce the framework of “active ignorance” as a way to understand the strategies that scientists and philosophers use to sow confusion around the fraught relationship between science and race.

To Vote or Not to Vote? That is the Question

Christopher Ojeda &   Richard PacelleChristopher Ojeda, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science

Richard Pacelle, Professor and Head, Department of Political Science

The images are stunning. Middle aged women and men emerge, often in tears, from a voting booth in a country that has just changed its name or has just thrown off the yoke of authoritarianism. They wear a badge of honor, a blue paint mark on their finger. They vow not to wash it off. Contrast that with the United States where people have the right to vote but often fail to exercise it. We take the right and the responsibility for granted.

And yet, Americans are engrossed with voting processes. More than half the amendments to the Constitution since the Bill of Rights (10 of 17) have involved voting and/or elections. Today, voting is a central political issue as it probably has not been since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Both Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of compromising the integrity of elections by trying to manipulate the voting process.

What is going on? What is voter suppression and what can you do about it? What is the future of voting? And, most importantly, why should you vote in this election?

Doing the Work to Be Good Relatives

Lisa KingLisa King, Associate Professor
Department of English

The term antiracist incorporates the belief that racism is everyone’s problem and each person has a role to play in stopping it. The term, however, cannot fully encompass Indigenous peoples’ experiences or fully dismantle colonial systems without an active engagement with decolonial perspectives. In her presentation, Professor King will bring together the concepts of antiracist work and decolonial work to show how the two can be complementary, but how we need them both to deal with the ideological and cultural frames we live in, as well as the histories we inherit.

jessi grieserLinguistic Diversity in the Classroom

Jessi Grieser, Assistant Professor, Department of English

One way of being actively anti-racist in the classroom is being aware of language variation and appreciative of linguistic diversity. In her presentation, Jessi Grieser, assistant professor of English, will explore the workings of standard language ideology and the principle of linguistic subordination. She will explain how we can move away from “correct English” in our assessment strategies and toward inclusive strategies that respect language variation.