The commission focuses on protecting and retaining black and African American students, faculty, and staff, as well as helping them find opportunities for personal and professional growth. The chair and vice chairs meet with the chancellor and provost monthly to communicate the questions, concerns, and needs of the black community gleaned from the commissioners serving on the ground. The group also works to enhance the campus racial climate and seek opportunities for civil discourse around issues of race, racism, and biases.
The group meets monthly in Frieson Black Cultural Center.
The commission is a multiracial group of faculty, staff, students, and external community members appointed by the chancellor. Some members come from various campus groups, including the other commissions, the Council on Diversity and Interculturalism, Faculty Senate, Graduate Student Senate, the Black Faculty and Staff Association, the Black Alumni Council, the Dean of Students Office, and Human Resources (including the associate vice chancellor for human resources). See a full list of members.
Chair is Sharon Couch (firstname.lastname@example.org, 865-974-7491), coordinator of student life and diversity and inclusion programs in the Herbert College of Agriculture. Vice chairs are James Williams (email@example.com, 865-974-6615), assistant professor of retail, hospitality, and tourism management, and Javiette Samuel (firstname.lastname@example.org, 974-4863), director of community engagement in the Office of Research and Engagement.
Goals for the Year
The commission’s leadership team is just beginning their two years of service. At a mixer for black faculty, staff, and students this fall, participants completed a survey that’s being used to help develop a strategic plan and mission statement. Among the ideas culled from the survey:
- Seek opportunities for collaborative excellence
- Enhance feelings of mattering and belonging
- Create a campus culture and environment of support
- Conduct a climate study to discover why black faculty, students, and staff stay at UT
- Develop a plan that uses research as a way to connect and engage black faculty and students
- Establish a peer review subcommittee to look at other SEC institutions and their diversity officers
Events and Initiatives
Each year, the commission organizes the Trailblazer Award, which honors African Americans affiliated with the university who are trailblazers in their disciplines or within the fields of diversity, inclusion, and social justice. A speaker series features the honorees.
Visit the Commission for Blacks website for more information.
Sharon Couch represented America in the 1992 and 2000 Olympics, competing in long jump and sprint hurdles.
As it turns out, her athletic training was good preparation for climbing the academic career ladder as an African American woman.
Professional growth has been a relay race, and she’s had the encouragement of many African American mentors. Now, as the coordinator of student life and diversity programs in the Herbert College of Agriculture and chair of the Commission for Blacks, she’s looking for ways to pass the baton to others.
Couch graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1991. That year she also became the first African American woman to win the Patterson Medal, the school’s highest athletic honor.
Couch represented the United States at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, making the finals in the long jump, and at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, advancing to the semifinals in the 100-meter hurdles.
She spent about a decade coaching, training athletes and coaches, and working in various corporate positions. In 2010 she came to UT as an assistant coach for women’s track and field.
“I was called out of being in the business world to coach and to impact young female student–athletes at the top of their game.”
She coached for four years. When that position ended, she stayed at UT to pursue a master’s degree in sport psychology.
Couch said she discovered a network of African American faculty and staff to help her navigate the system and find opportunities to continue working at UT on the academic side.
She became a graduate teaching assistant in the Student Success Center. From there, she landed a position as an advisor in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. She was already in her sport psychology and motor behavior PhD program in the Department of Kinesiology when she was hired for her current job in the Herbert College of Agriculture.
“It’s 50 percent student life and 30 percent diversity and inclusion. I couldn’t really write a better job for myself.”
Couch was appointed to the Commission for Blacks a year ago and sees it as another avenue to give back—a way to help others as campus mentors helped her.
“There’s no way I could be where I am in my life without other African American people along with allies who believed in me.”
Couch said her goals as commission chair are to help unite the campus community and implement policies that benefit everyone.
“We have the ear of the provost and chancellor,” she said. “The goal is to create an environment where African American people feel like they belong and have opportunities to grow—and remain here for the length of their careers, calling Rocky Top home, as I have.”
An expert on developing leaders, James Williams knows that everyday decisions about the way you treat others can be life-changing.
Williams admits to having been a thug when he was a kid—frequently getting in trouble at school, becoming a teen father, dealing drugs, and running with a gang. When he nearly killed a man, he had a personal reckoning and started turning his life around. He went to college, did a stint in the US Air Force, and played professional arena football with the Raleigh Rebels in North Carolina for two years.
Now Williams, who was a first-generation college student, is an assistant professor in the Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences and serves as the faculty chair for athletics on the Faculty Senate committee. His research interests include leadership, the impact of youth sports on leadership and decision making, and traits of hospitality business leaders.
Williams believes leadership is mental, physical, and spiritual—an idea he explores in his two books, From Thug to Scholar: An Odyssey to Unmask My True Potential and How to Get Abs Like a Bodybuilder but Eat Like a Fat Boy. He’s also the president and owner of UnMaskYTP, a consulting business that helps managers become better leaders.
Williams has been on the Commission for Blacks for two years and now serves as a co-chair.
“I’m not real big on the race construct of white and black,” Williams said, adding that he prefers to look past race and see that “everybody is connected spiritually through this universal titer we call love.”
Yet he understands that racial inequalities exist.
Serving on the commission gives him a platform to help level the playing field while promoting the notion that the campus community can work better when it presents a united front.
“I think a lot of the students get that. The majority of the students I teach are white, but they think diversity and inclusion are important.”
He suggests the campus community should look at other issues the same way it looks at football: “We want UT to win.
“Take that same mindset—we want a great college campus, we want to recognize those who are marginalized, and we want to be caring and try to move in the right direction.”