Terri Jett arrived at Butler in 1999 to begin her teaching career as an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Peace and Conflict Studies after earning her Ph.D. in Public Policy and Public Administration from Auburn University. Originally from California, Jett was unfamiliar with the Hoosier state, but was drawn to the energy of the faculty and students she met at Butler and the opportunity she saw for connecting her teaching and research with the broader Indianapolis community. More than 20 years later, Jett has excelled at the work she set out to do. Last year, she was named a 2021-22 Distinguished Faculty Award recipient for her profound contributions to Butler University over the course of her career.
In many ways, Jett has been a trailblazer at Butler, including becoming the first Black female to earn tenure, and in 2020 becoming the first Black female to be promoted to full professor. Along with her teaching responsibilities as a member of the faculty, Jett has taken on numerous additional roles over the years including Faculty Director of the Hub for Black Affairs and Community Engagement (the Hub), Member of the Steering Committee of the Race, Gender, Sexuality Studies Program (RGSS), Faculty Senator, and Faculty Fellow at the Desmond Tutu Peace Lab Think Tank. She also served as Department Chair from 2007-2014, a role she has currently resumed as Interim while the current Chair is on sabbatical.
“One of the many outstanding aspects of Dr. Jett’s career has been her innovative spirit and her ability to develop undergraduate experiences that invite students into her areas of academic investigation,” said Terri Carney, Professor of Spanish, Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures.
Jett has developed almost two dozen courses—core, departmental, honors, and even taught in our Washington D.C. Semester Program—and is always eager to seize on opportunities to take her students beyond the borders of campus. She has led students on numerous occasions to Selma, Alabama with the Honors course Voting Rights in Black and White: The Case of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. She says walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is always a moving and eye-opening experience for her students that brings the Civil Rights Movement to life in new ways.
Of the many courses she has taught, Jett says one of her favorites to teach is the Politics of Alice Walker, which she teaches nearly every summer. Prior to the pandemic, Jett also offered the course several times at the Indiana Women’s Prison and was able to bring some of her Butler students to visit her class in prison.
“Alice Walker really had these women freed up to tell their own story, and then interacting with the Butler students led to some very nice sharing that was happening between them.” Jett said. “Her writing is so empowering. She writes based on who she is and where she comes from, and I find that inspirational. And I try to direct students to understand that their story is just as valid, that there is power in their own stories. If you know your own story, that’s a good starting point for you to go out and do good things in the world.”
Jett is committed to doing good things in the world herself, and is known in the Indianapolis community for her service and activism. She has served in many formal and informal leadership roles, through which she has built a strong network of connections. She currently serves on the board of Indiana Humanities and is appointed by Mayor Joe Hogsett to the Indianapolis Land Improvement Bond Bank Board. She also moderates a series on local PBS station WFYI called Simple Civics, which provides short civics lessons and was nominated for a Great Lakes Region Emmy in 2020 and again in 2021.
“Dr. Jett takes learning seriously, both in the classroom and out in the larger community, and she teaches her students to do the same,” Carney said. “She models the sort of lifelong learning we strive to instill in our students.”
Jett says her community activism is inspired in part by a desire to demonstrate how to be an engaged citizen for her students as well as a desire to connect her teaching and research to issues happening within the community.
“And, I do it because it’s fulfilling,” she said.
From 2016-2020, Jett served as the Special Assistant to the Provost for Diversity and Inclusivity, during which time she played a key leadership role in contributing to the implementation process of the Social Justice and Diversity requirement being added to the Core Curriculum. She also co-chaired the Founder’s Day Committee and, along with her colleagues, helped to lay the groundwork for much of the broader University-wide DEI initiatives now underway.
Though Jett has various roles within and outside of Butler, she finds satisfaction in discovering ways to integrate her teaching, research, and service. For instance, her research focuses on agriculture and food justice, and last year she leveraged her area of academic expertise and her role as Faculty Director of the Hub to partner with Indy Women in Food in hosting the organization’s first conference on Butler’s campus focused on food insecurity in the city.
“I’m thrilled when I’m able to do that,” Jett said. “All of the hats that I wear are sort of constantly engaged at the same time, and I like that I get to work like that. I’m not running from one thing to the next, I feel like my work is layered with multiple connection points.”
Tarryn Harris ʼ23 has known Jett since her first year at Butler. Their paths crossed through their shared involvement with the Desmond Tutu Peace Lab, and Harris later took Jett’s Black Political Thought course. Now, Harris works alongside Jett as a student apprentice researching food justice. She says Jett’s mentorship has influenced her time at Butler and her vision for the future.
“She’s opened my eyes to a lot of different possibilities of what working in a field like food justice could be,” Harris said. “I think normally when we think of food justice we just think of volunteering at food pantries or things like that, but learning the political dimensions of it and understanding what research and scholarship on the topic can do to better the situation has been a really great experience for me. I’m grateful to her for allowing me to work with her on projects that she’s been thinking about for a really long time.”
Much of Jett’s time is now focused on her work as Faculty Director of the Hub, which she was instrumental in creating and launching with support from the University in 2020. The center now includes a full-time program specialist and an office in Jordan Hall that has become a gathering space for students on campus. Harris says the Hub is just one of many examples of the ways Jett seeks to create a welcoming environment at Butler for all students.
“The thing that I admire and respect the most about her is the work that she’s done to make students of color, particularly Black students, feel comfortable on campus,” Harris said. “I think the roles she’s taken on and the extra work she’s taken on is commendable considering that she’s also a Black person in a predominately white space.”
Jett says the support of her colleagues, particularly those in the Race, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, has been instrumental in offering her a source of strength, camaraderie, and encouragement in her daily work.
“Most academics that are fighting for good causes and using their expertise and their knowledge to try to change things for the better know we’re going to be met with resistance,” Jett said. “That’s the point. We’re fully equipped and capable of addressing that resistance, not as individuals, but as a community of scholars. So that’s where I see myself, as part of this greater community, and I could not be here without them.”
In nominating her for the Distinguished Faculty Award, several of Jett’s colleagues noted her long history of using her voice to point out the places where the University still needs to grow while simultaneously leading the work she suggests needs to be done to improve. Carney says Jett’s willingness to be an active participant in creating solutions inspires others to do the same.
“While she is known around campus for her activism and her fearlessness in challenging institutional practices that she thinks are unfair or unjust, Dr. Jett is one of the most loyal and dedicated Butler faculty members I know,” Carney said. “My own work and that of many others on this campus would not be possible without her as a friend, a colleague, a mentor, and an inspiration.”
This article is part of a series honoring the 2021-22 recipients of the Butler University Distinguished Faculty Award. The Butler University Distinguished Faculty Award celebrates the professional accomplishments of the University’s faculty, recognizing excellence in the combined areas of teaching, research, scholarship and creative work, and service/leadership. This award recognizes exemplary achievement, accomplishments and contributions across the length and breadth of the award winner’s career at Butler University.