Diversity leads to UTC moment of silence instead of prayer at football games

photo Verbie Prevost, left, hugs Dr. Roger Brown, chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, before he officially announces his early retirement Monday afternoon inside of UTC's University Center.

The decision to switch from prayers to a moment of silence before UTC football games is meant to ensure the campus is inclusive to everyone at the school and in Chattanooga, Chancellor Roger Brown said Monday.

"We need to make sure there is never anybody that goes away from our campus, our stadium, our arena or classroom or work, that feels like they have been excluded or feel uncomfortable in any way," Brown said.

The practice of observing a moment of silence, which is effective immediately, will be prefaced by asking those who attend the game to "think about many of the things we all hold dear in our hearts and our minds," including service men and women overseas and those less fortunate, according to Brown.

Brown said the decision to replace the prayer, which had been delivered by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes before football games since 2010, was the right decision for the university.

"This is becoming a very diverse city, and there are faiths from all around the world who live on this campus and live in this community," he said. "I don't think a public university should be a place where anyone feels uncomfortable to be. I want this place to be a meeting of minds and scholarship, as well as activity and joy. And anyone who comes here and feels excluded, it's a bad thing."

In May, Brown received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, asking that the university stop holding Christian prayers before university events. The foundation also has sent letters to other area groups, including the Hamilton County Commission and Walker County Schools.

Chuck Cantrell, spokesman for UTC, said prayers would be ended at football games, but whether they would continue at other university events would be decided on a case-in-case basis.

UTC Mocs Coach Russ Huesman said he had not thought about the issue of prayer at football games.

"I know what goes on in my locker room. Out there [in the stadium] -- I don't think too much about it," he said. "It's not that I'm insensitive to it, but I just haven't thought much about it."

The UTC Secular Student Alliance encouraged its members and other students to contact the university about the prayers when it learned of the letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Bryan Barkley, a senior at UTC and co-chairman and media relations coordinator of the Secular Student Alliance, said the decision to switch to a moment of silence is "important because civil rights are inalienable."

"It goes back to the very core of our foundation as a country," Barkley said. "And it's not within the rights of the majority to impose their will on the minority."

At the same news conference, Brown -- whom Barkley praised for his work with students on the prayer issue -- announced he will be retiring effective Sept. 30. Brown previously announced in June that he would retire in March 2013, but he re-evaluated at the beginning of the new school year.

"I started this school year with the belief that getting back into my routine, thinking and hoping that would be therapeutic to my heart and soul after the hard year I've had," said Brown, whose wife Dr. Carolyn Thompson died of bone marrow cancer in March. "I was not able to recapture the clear focus and the level of energy that this job requires. I think I didn't quite give myself enough time to cope with all the changes in my life. And I think that's what I need to do now."

Grady Bogue, a former professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and chancellor at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, was named interim chancellor by UT system President Joe DiPietro.

Bogue will begin as interim chancellor Sept. 20.

"Since the moment we've started talking about this, his excitement has grown and grown," DiPietro said.

Bogue said his first order of business will be meeting with members of the UTC community and the Chattanooga community at-large to maintain and build upon the goals of the university and city. As a condition of his appointment as interim chancellor, Bogue will not be a candidate for the position.

"My first job will be to affirm the good work that's already under way and to provide a stable and affirming climate in which the men and women of the university can do their work," said Bogue, who was at the news conference. "They are the first voice of the university. Chancellors are builders of climate."

The search committee already has met and will continue its search for a new chancellor. DiPietro said the committee was working on a tight timeline and hoped to have some news on the search by February.

Brown called his decision to retire "bittersweet," but said he hopes to stay actively involved with the campus, and that he would provide help to the next chancellor should he or she ask for it.

Brown marks the university's continued growth and rising student qualifications as part of his proudest achievements, but said he hopes the legacy he leaves on campus is one of involvement and community.

"I hope the faculty and staff will say they trusted me, and that I was open to listening to them and I tried to take their advice seriously," he said. "The second thing is that I hope the community of Chattanooga, [that] has gathered around this university over its 125 years, will say that I reached out to them, that I didn't stay behind my office doors."

Contact staff writer Rachel Bunn at rbunn@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.