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On Monday, WSMV broke the news that the May family's sweetheart deal with TSU -- 250 acres for a research park and a $400,000 endowment -- was not no-strings attached
, as May Town Center developer Tony Giarratana had originally claimed back in February. In fact, the gift was entirely contingent on Metro council rezoning the land. Meaning no May Town, no gift.
The news came courtesy of a public records request from former councilman and May Town opponent David Briley. And it wasn't the only revelation.
Turns out, May Town is paying a TSU professor $50,000 for the May Town Scholars Program, a three-phase research project where the last phase consists of "outreach to 'strategic TSU alumni.'" Under the contract, TSU's alumni office provides Scholars, six current TSU students, a database of 10,000 former students for them to call. Dr. David Padgett, an associate professor of geography running the program, told Pith yesterday that his only role in this is research.
"My primary interest is what's going to be the response of African Americans in this process," he said. "I'm not a lobbyist and I'm not a salesman. I'm just looking at this as an environmental researcher. Period."
But the script Dr. Padgett provided to May Town Scholars says otherwise...
When TSU alumni in North Nashville get a call from the May Town Scholars, this is what they hear:
1) Hello, my name is ________. I am a (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, grad student) at Tennessee State University.
May I speak with Mr./Ms. ________________.
[if Mr/Ms ____ comes on, start at # 1 again; if not available, go to # 2]
2) I am not calling to ask for a donation, I just wanted to make sure that you heard the exciting news announced by TSU President Dr. Melvin Johnson on Thursday.
3) TSU has the opportunity to be part of May Town Center in Bells Bend, located a few miles from main campus of TSU.
4) Dr. Johnson announced that TSU will receive:
a) 200 acres for Sustainable Agricultural Research
b) $400,000 toward endowment of a Chair of Excellence
c) 50 acres for a new, TSU Research Park
5) Dr. Johnson is excited that these initiatives will create good jobs, world-class research and enhance the stature of TSU.
6) We would like to keep you informed as this development moves forward. Or you can go to maytowncenter.com for more information.
Look objective to you? Nah, didn't think so.
Says Briley: "It's pretty unprecedented for a private developer to enter into a partnership with a university where the students are hired, in a polite way of putting it, to go out and try to convince the public that the project is a good idea. It seems pretty far afield from a university's educational purpose."
Oddly enough, Pith got this script from Dr. Padgett himself. In an e-mail in which he also made the claim that "we are NOT doing PR. For us to bias our subject pool in any way would taint our research! Scientists have to be OBJECTIVE, or we would invalidate our results."
Talking to Dr. Padgett, it's hard to root against him. As a scholar who specializes in urban geography, it's understandable to think he'd be excited by May Town Center. Here's an issue that's chock full of questions about race and conservation, and it's right in his backyard.
But the gap between his statements and the baldly non-objective language in the script is huge. I can't figure out what's worse: Dr. Padgett being ignorant to the ways in which he's being manipulated by both the May Town people and his own university (because, after all, they win too if May Town gets built), or knowing exactly what he's doing and going along with it anyway.
Briley and the professor are meeting today at 2 PM to hash things out. We'll let you know what comes off it.