KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee is now a part of the Aspire Alliance, a group of universities nationwide with one commitment in mind.

"The idea of retaining and recruiting a more diverse faculty that in turn will help us retain for diverse students as well," assistant vice chancellor for research development Kimberly Eck said. 

It's a move they said is vital.

"We need to have more diversity to really tackle 21st century problems," she added.

A snapshot of the university's employee demographics shows out more than 9,000 people, only about 16% come from a diverse background. It is a point Eck said isn't lost on the university.

"We know from the literature that having a more diverse faculty helps recruit and retain more diverse student," Eck said.

The effects this has on students is a big part of the conversation. Knox County Education Association President Tanya Coats said it starts as early as elementary school.

"Statistics show if you have an experience with one teacher of color in the classroom your rate of graduating goes up," Coats said.

For that reason she said it has to be a priority for schools across the country.

"If we don't have teachers of color in the classroom our kids are missing an integral piece of the united states," she said.

The University of Tennessee adds research shows representation in the classroom can close between 20 to 50% of the achievement gap. Coats believes that could be a game changer.

"We can do a better job about doing that," she said. 

The Aspire Alliance is a three-year commitment, and each school will reevaluate its own practices and compare them in hopes to make them better and more inclusive.