UT, Downtown and Food for the Mind

“Budrus” introduced at Hodge’s Library, UT, Knoxville

Recently, the Knoxville News Sentinel touted the fact that in the most recent U.S. News and World Report, the University of Tennessee had moved from 47th to 46th on that magazine’s list of the best public universities. You can look at the whole list here, but I thought it was striking that the spin was to be excited about being number forty-six. Of course, that’s fine for academics, but not so much for sports teams. In case you are wondering, UT is tied for the eleventh best public university in the south and it is the sixth best in the SEC if you include Vanderbilt, which is a private university.

I moved to Knoxville in 1982 and I was happy to have a University in the city, just as I’d had in my previous residence. I realized after living here for a while that I made some assumptions about the impact and role a university has and that some of them were correct in this case and others were not. I assumed a community within a stone’s throw of a major university would be more open-minded, if not liberal. While that isn’t always the case in Knoxville, it is still true that thinkers are tolerated to a greater degree than they might be in its absence.

A panel discussion followed the screening.

One such night of tolerance came last week when the university hosted a screening of the film “Budrus,” with a panel discussion afterward. The film depicts a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who initiated a peaceful protest to the placement of Israel’s security wall through Budrus’ cemetery and olive groves, which are their only source of a livelihood. The protest was joined by his fifteen-year-old daughter and then the women of the village. Subsequently like-minded Israeli’s joined and the wall was moved.

The panelists included a UT freshman who has dual citizenship in Palestine and the US and three UT professors who have varying degrees of involvement in the issue. One of them has been traveling to the occupied territory for many years. The tone was pretty pessimistic but, more importantly, the discussion happened and it happened in a civil manner. Several statements were made which might have seemed extreme to one side or the other and no one shouted, swore or used vile epithets to denounce those with whom they disagreed.

A civil crowd discusses a difficult issue – imagine that!

So, maybe this is a long way around to saying that I think having a major university in our downtown adds an element that we would very much miss without it. I was able to walk from downtown to the discussion at the Hodges Library without any trouble and without feeling the least bit unsafe. I listened to people with whom I agreed and to some I did not and my thinking was accordingly complicated regarding the issue.

Of course, we get much more from the University of Tennessee: Those who are interested are able to enjoy elite college athletic competition. Arts, concerts, poets and generally bright people are added to our urban mix as a result of UT’s proximity. The students who flock to downtown add a youthful vibrancy that would otherwise be missing, not to mention the money they bring to downtown restaurants, bars and other businesses.

So, maybe it’s number forty-six, but it is an important piece of the fabric of our little city and one of the reasons that downtown Knoxville is such a great place to live.

In the meantime, here is the trailer to the movie. I’d encourage you to find it and watch it. It would be worth your effort.