Over the next year, Dr. Bill Hardgrave said he will be meeting with community leaders because he “needs to get to know the community.” Asked specifically about diversity, Hardgrave praised diversity as “one of the tremendous strengths of the university." (Courtesy photo) 

A letter dated Nov. 9 – the day University of Memphis brass embraced Dr. Bill Hardgrave as its next president – seeks answers in 10 days to questions regarding Hardgrave’s stated commitment to prioritizing diversity initiatives.

The letter was sent to the university’s Board of Trustees by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ Black Caucus and the Memphis Branch NAACP.

Van Turner Jr. (TSD Archives)

Van Turner Jr., who is both a county commissioner and president of the Memphis NAACP, said it was important to express concern about a continuing commitment to diversity.

The letter states directly that Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ Black Caucus and the Memphis Branch NAACP were “woefully disappointed in the lack of racial diversity represented among the finalists.”

When he takes over officially next spring, Hardgrave will be the UofM’s 13th president. His background includes serving as provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Auburn University, where for a time he also was dean of the university’s business college. 

“The NAACP co-authored the letter with the Black Caucus out of a need to express a growing concern in the community,” Turner told The New Tri-State Defender (TSD) on Wednesday. “Hopefully, as Dr. Hardgrave takes over and builds out his leadership team, he will accept our letter in the spirit of collaboration. Equity and diversity will only make the University and this community stronger and better.”

When the TSD sought comment through the University of Memphis marketing and communications office about whether the letter had been received, staff declined to comment on any matter pertaining to it.

In the letter, the two groups join with others excited about the priority being put on enhancing the university’s research status, an effort Hardgrave is expected to take on before officially starting as president. Noting that Hardgrave has said he is committed to working with the community and prioritizing diversity initiatives, the group asks for more details.

Among the specific questions:

  • What does this commitment look like for Dr. Hardgrave?
  • How will the success of these commitments be measured in terms of impact?
  • What initiatives will Dr. Hardgrave undertake as now president of a university that is over 40 percent Black?
  • What training or experience will Dr. Hardgrave commit to to broaden his awareness considering he is leaving an institution that is 3 percent Black?

While the groups would have preferred that their concerns had been addressed before the unanimous vote by the UofM Board of Trustees, here is their resolve:

“…that the Board of Trustees and Dr. Hardgrave commit to releasing answers to these questions within ten business days. We look forward to continued partnership with the University of Memphis as an anchor of the broader Memphis community and hope to see clearer examples of racial equity in the future.”

On Tuesday during prepared remarks Hardgrave said his three priorities would be academics, research and athletics.

“We want to scrap and fight to keep getting better every day,” he said. “It’s going to take everyone pulling in the same direction.”

Over the next year, Hardgrave said he will be meeting with community leaders because he “needs to get to know the community.”

Asked specifically about diversity, Hardgrave praised diversity as “one of the tremendous strengths of the university. 

 “There is diversity of the student body, and the culture of diversity is here, and in the great history and culture of this city. … The magic happens when we really can harness that and build upon that, coming from a place of strength.”

Hardgrave said he didn’t know what that looks like right now, adding that he would better understand in the next year as he gets to know the Memphis community.

“We do know that diversity must be accessible, there must be an environment of inclusiveness and everyone must feel safe and welcome,” he said.

Tami Sawyer (Photo: Facebook)

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who chairs the Commission’s Black Caucus, lamented that the Board of Trustees chose Hardgrave in a 10-minute meeting, without considering the questions and concerns voiced about both “the lack of diversity in the selection process” and “Dr. Hardgrave’s stated commitments to diversity initiatives and the Memphis community.”

In a statement issued by the University of Memphis announcing Hardgrave’s hire, he is extolled for securing a $40 million donation for Auburn during his 11-year tenure there. Hardgrave also established the Information Technology Research Institute in 1999 at the University of Arkansas, where he taught in the business school.  

He replaces M. David Rudd, who will be leaving the president’s post in May and returning to the faculty.