“Message Consistency” at Tennessee State

On July 11 and 12 The Tennessean ran several articles about problems at Tennessee State University, a state-supported historically black school in Nashville. As the lead article summarized, “a symbol of success and hope in north Nashville for decades, Tennessee State University’s struggle with enrollment, graduation rates and poor business practices threatens to thwart its mission.”

It was an interesting, severe investigation into the school and one alumnus was offended.

On July 18th The Tennessean ran an essay by arguably Tennessee State’s most respected graduate, athletic legend Ralph Boston. Boston, who won the gold medal for the long jump at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome (in addition to many other athletic achievements), graduated from Tennessee State in 1962. Boston wrote that,

The facts in the stories are true, but the stories are incomplete and shockingly lacking in context.

Despite the obstacles, [outgoing Tennessee State President Melvin] Johnson accomplished many things that put the university on the right footing. His efforts to bring the university community along to recognize that there was a need for great change were challenged by a few, but that is expected. If everyone is happy, you are not doing your job. Never-the-less, Johnson initiated changes that served to strengthen the position of TSU as it moves forward.

And then some professors noticed that Boston’s essay looked curiously familiar.

It turns out that several passages of the Boston piece published in the paper were essentially the same as the text of a PR email sent out by Johnson’s special assistant, Peter Nwosu, to the Tennessee State community in reaction to the article. Nwosu explained that he gave Boston the text he used to make his argument to promote “message consistency.”

According to a piece in Inside Higher Ed Tennessee State “says that it gave Boston the information to use as he wished, so there are no plagiarism issues.”

Well no, but the piece certainly lacks some of the spontaneity and honest indignation when it turns out the arguments originated not from an offended supporter of the university, but from a paid staffer who exists to manage the school’s public reputation.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer