By David Miller
May 3, 2021
University of Alabama political science professor Dr. Utz McKnight has been named the recipient of the 2021 Buford Peace Award.
Housed in the School of Social Work, the Lahoma Adams Buford Endowed Support Fund provides the Buford Peace Award. The university-wide endowed award is presented annually to a University of Alabama faculty member who is both professionally and personally active in causes that promote peace and justice.
McKnight joined the UA faculty in 2003 and has served as chair for the department of gender and race studies since 2013. His research has focused primarily on the intersection of race and politics, including five books.
McKnight is lauded for his contributions to teaching and his role in leading and advocating for faculty and staff on campus. McKnight served as Black Faculty and Staff Association president from 2014 to 2016 and is the recipient of the Autherine Lucy Award, NAACP Student Award and Last Lecture Award, among others.
“When I learned I’d receive the award, I looked at the list and recognized past winners like Norm Baldwin and Cassie Simon, and about six or seven faculty I know,” McKnight said. “When recognizing contributions to both community and campus, I’m honored to join this group.”
Through the social and political turbulence of the last several years, McKnight says his work to promote equality and equity and redefine progress has received greater attention and a rightful platform in the current “morass for change,” as college campuses are “the heart of the narratives” about race, gender and class.
“Universities are the places where those things get worked out,” McKnight said. “You’re not talking about these ideas and these changes in a typical workplace. Universities are much more important than we think we are.”
Dr. Cassandra Simon, associate professor of social work at UA and the first recipient of the Buford Peace Award, came to the Capstone in 2000 and has admired McKnight’s service and advocacy on campus through the years. Simon, a Last Lecture award recipient and noted social justice advocate, said McKnight is “long overdue” to receive the Buford Peace Award.
“[McKnight] has often served on social work student committees and most recently served on the School of Social Work’s Dean Search Committee,” Simon said. “He is always willing to partner with the School on bringing diversity related programming to the School. More concretely, he is always looking for ways to bring people together for the common good.”
Simon noted McKnight’s dedication to serving current and former students, a passion recently reflected during the COVID-19 pandemic, when McKnight organized a fund to “help bring financial equity” to graduate students, many of whom had lost funding.
“He organized a group of people who would go out and buy groceries for those students, many of whom had families,” Simon said.
Reflecting on his work ahead, McKnight says the broader social and cultural chasms aren’t surprising, given the history of change in the United States, the resistance to it, and how each generation re-defines progress. He says UA, like many American institutions, is “in a test” to define equality and equity, determine how much of each is needed, and accurately measure growth.
“It’s a great time to be alive, but it’s a very fraught time, in terms of trying to stay at peace with everyone,” McKnight said. “What’s the middle position right now, and where can we work together and build something?”