Dr. Terri Jett: Leaving an irreplaceable legacy

Jett’s legacy is defined by her impact in and outside of the Butler community. Photo by Natalie Goo

LEAH OLLIE | MANAGING EDITOR | lollie@butler.edu 

When professor of political science Dr. Terri Jett arrived at Butler University in 1999, the institution — and academia at large — looked very different. Jett describes her job application process as one customary of academic conferences of the 90s, in which she “put [her] name in [a box] of positions that [she was] interested in, and hope[d] that someone would request [her] to interview for a position.” 

As a graduate student studying public policy for her Ph.D. at Auburn University, Jett was drawn to Butler’s political science department for its interdisciplinary reach, strong liberal arts core and tight-knit campus atmosphere. Once she arrived at Butler, Jett immediately established herself as a creative junior faculty member who blended her passion for community engagement and organizing with robust political pedagogy. 

24 years later this March, Jett will depart from Butler to take on a new role as associate vice president and senior diversity officer at Saint Mary’s College of California, returning to her home state in the Bay Area. Jett’s role will allow her to continue the advocacy work she has become renowned for in her leadership as the founding faculty director of Butler’s Hub for Black Affairs and Community Engagement

Jett’s involvement in the Indianapolis community has been integral to her pedagogical approaches, and crucial to her development of the Hub’s programming. Through her involvement in local cultural initiatives and nonprofit organizations, Jett has led Butler’s involvement in the work and legacy of the Fortnightly Literary Collection, the MLK Community Center and Indianapolis Public Schools students through the MLK Oratorical Contest. Emmy-nominated for her role as moderator of “Simple Civics” on WFYI, Jett has additionally served on the boards of the ACLU of Indiana, Indiana Humanities, The Indianapolis Public Library and the Indianapolis Land Improvement Bond Bank Board

As leader of the Hub and the first Black woman in Butler’s history to attain full professor status, Jett has represented Butler while forging new connections to cultivate Black scholarship and foster community in Indianapolis. 

The connection between Jett’s involvement in the community and her teaching is one she considers fundamentally reciprocal, and reflective of her roots as a scholar. 

“[When] I became tenured, I had taught 16 different types of courses … and then my scholarship has always been grounded in areas that I thought were important to me as a Black person,” Jett said. “It also comes from my faith background. My parents started a church with other families in California, Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church, based on Black liberation theology. That’s always about taking your education and using it to do good in your community. So, I was doing that kind of side by side in my work here at Butler.” 

In remaining conscious of the historically fraught relationship between the “Butler bubble” and the broader Indianapolis community, Jett seeks to connect her work across different fields to share her scholarship both on and off campus. 

“I’m at this predominantly white institution, but I’m also focusing on what’s going on with this significant — 35% — Black population that’s within the community of the city of Indianapolis,” Jett said. “I’ve always brought stuff from the community into my classroom, [then] take that stuff [in the classroom] out to the community.” 

In the 16 different types of courses Jett has taught during her tenure, she has educated students about political movements, Civil Rights figures and many more aspects of her scholarship informed by her community involvement. 

“I was teaching a lot of American traditional political science courses, but I was putting my own spin on it,” Jett said. “Right away, I got some support to take students to Alabama, to the Selma Montgomery Voting Rights March … I stayed [at Butler] because I was able to explore my interdisciplinary perspective, and got a lot of support as a junior scholar going up the ranks … I got a real sense of enthusiasm really early on in my career just testing different types of things out, but then also staying very tuned in to my discipline, attending the political science conferences [and] also making connections with other faculty members here.” 

Much of Jett’s work in the Hub has been conducted in conjunction with the Hub’s Project Specialist Alexis Newell, who affirmed the impact of Jett’s leadership as faculty director. Newell joined the staff team in October of 2021, following the Hub’s founding in June of 2020. Jett maintains a culture of valuing community partners’ time as well as labor, ensuring that all of the Hub’s visiting speakers and guests are compensated for their appearances at Butler. Jett also ties the programming the Hub hosts with her course materials, encouraging further learning beyond one-off events and access to educational resources. 

“We have [these resources] that we can give out to start building and closing these accessibility gaps,” Newell said. “I also always loved how Dr. Jett has the Visiting Black Intellectual Series structured to be two to three days. It shouldn’t just be a lecture; it’s gotta be in community. When we had the [Fortnightly Book Club] ladies with our collection, they were a part of her class as well. [Each] idea is not just supposed to be a one-off, [so] how do we make things sustainable? How do we keep people engaged and feeling connected to the work?” 

Jett’s investment in students also reaches beyond the curriculum with regard to her work advising Bust The B.U.B.B.L.E., a student collective founded in 2014 to combat racism and white supremacy on campus. 

Anthony Murdock, then-founding member of Bust The B.U.B.B.L.E. and current lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation, shared the personal impact of Dr. Jett’s advocacy for students. 

“She went from being a Black faculty member who cared and a professor who I respected to a true advocate for the movement, [as well as] a mentor and a friend,” Murdock said. “You know, there’s no blueprint for surviving white supremacy. So as I remember, she just saw Black students [having] an experience, and it’s not like our experience was foreign to her … She made sure that we knew that she was available, and [said,] ‘What can I do to be able to support you in that work?’” 

Jett’s connection with Black students and dedication to creating a safe space for them is a legacy that will continue at Butler in her absence, as she moves on to her next chapter building an inclusive campus at Saint Mary’s. 

Victory Sampson, a junior strategic communication and multilingual studies double major who works as a student apprentice in the Hub, spoke to the power of Dr. Jett’s passion for connecting with and advocating for students through the Hub. 

“Dr. Jett has worked at Butler University for 20 years, [and] we need to acknowledge that in a meaningful way [that is] respectful and demonstrative of 20-plus years of adding value to this university,” Sampson said. “There have been numerous students at this university, especially prospective students, that have come here specifically for the Hub. I have seen parents come into the Hub and feel a sense of relief because they know that there is a specific space for their Black child on this campus. I just don’t think really that the university understands the impact that [the Hub] has on the Black population at Butler, but there needs to be some sort of genuine acknowledgment of that.” 

The Hub is a project that Jett hopes will flourish — even and especially in the wake of her departure. Though no plans have been publicly announced by the university as to the status of a search for a leader to fill the role of faculty director, many are hoping that the next person to fill Dr. Jett’s shoes will continue the work she began. 

“So I’ve already laid the groundwork … now [the Hub] needs to have wider administrative support,” Jett said. “I’m hoping that the next person who comes into this role has the freedom to do liberatory work.”


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