Tennessee Lawmakers Propose Shifting $5M For Diversity At UT Into Rural Outreach | Nashville Public Radio

Tennessee Lawmakers Propose Shifting $5M For Diversity At UT Into Rural Outreach

Mar 2, 2016

The Senate Education Committee voted Wednesday to strip the University of Tennessee of state funding for its diversity office. Instead, that money would go toward the university's rural outreach programs.

This follows months of commotion after UT's diversity office wrote two blog posts, about gender-neutral pronouns and Christmas celebrations, that riled conservative lawmakers.

State Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, told officials today that she stood behind the university and appreciated its influence in the state. But then, without ever naming the school's Office for Diversity and Inclusion directly, she proposed an amendment that would redirect its funding — $5 million — into UT's Agricultural Extension Service.

"Over the years, I've seen a diminishment of resources going into rural Tennessee through the Extension Service," she said, pointing out that the state has a priority "to pour resources into rural Tennessee."

If the amendment passes, UT would be able to use only federal funds to support its diversity office. Officials fear the provision might also prevent private donations for diversity programming.

The amendment would also take $3 million out of UT Knoxville's administrative budget and dole it out to rural outreach programs at UT's Martin and Chattanooga campuses. 

University officials say they hope to persuade lawmakers to drop the amendment before the state's budget is passed.

More Questions About Diversity

Meanwhile, UT's diversity program is also facing criticism in the state House of Representatives. In a two-hour hearing earlier in the day, lawmakers heard from officials at both of the state's public college systems — UT and the Tennessee Board of Regents — about their diversity initiatives.

The most vocal skeptic was state Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, who wanted to know what the school was doing to help students who are not minorities or identify as LGBT. Kane grilled officials on the language of UT's diversity website, the amount of money that's being spent on programming and who the office is targeting.

"I know that you mentioned there are houses for the Baptists and the Methodists and the Catholics," he said. "How are you integrating those people into this group to be diverse?"

UT President Joe DiPietro responded that all students are welcome at diversity programming. He argued that diversity is good for industry in Tennessee, because businesses want to hire students who understand different cultures and backgrounds.

But it was the other higher education system, the Board of Regents, that seemed to score more points with lawmakers. It brought in two students to testify. Both were veterans, and one was a single father at Pellissippi State who said the diversity office helped him stay in school.

That testimony even got praise from Kane, who said, bluntly, he liked what TBR was doing more than UT.