Tennessee Lawmakers Vote To Strip UT Diversity Office Funding — But Only For One Year | Nashville Public Radio

Tennessee Lawmakers Vote To Strip UT Diversity Office Funding — But Only For One Year

Apr 21, 2016

State lawmakers resolved one of the biggest controversies of this year's session by voting to strip funding from the University of Tennessee's diversity office and divert the money into minority scholarships.

Legislators say the move will send a message to UT's Knoxville campus, without permanently damaging its efforts to promote diversity.

The decision affects the school's funding for one year only, but that could be enough to shut down the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. It's the one that's been criticized for a pair of web posts — one that encouraged the use of gender-neutral pronouns and another that discouraged calling holiday celebrations "Christmas parties."

State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, says those are just the latest in a string of embarrassments that he laid at the feet of UT administrators.

"We don't have these kinds of embarrassments from Memphis State, East Tennessee State. Martin. Why is it? It has to be something about the management system that's letting this university run awry."

The office's budget of just over $400,000 will be put into a scholarship program for minority engineers. UT once had such a program, but it had been shut down.

One thing that's not in the final plan is stickers. Lawmakers had talked about using the money for diversity to buy "In God We Trust" decals for police cruisers but determined ultimately that's a bad idea.

They also abandoned an earlier proposal to take even more money out of diversity programming, as much as $8 million, and shift it into rural outreach programs and to UT's campuses in Chattanooga and Martin.

Legislative opposition to taking away funds from the diversity office mainly came from Democrats.

Shortly before the vote, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, questioned whether UT would commit to a minority scholarship program that it had previously decided to discontinue. Republicans responded they'd been told by UT officials that the funds could prime the pump to get it going again, perhaps by encouraging private donors to contribute.

The measure, House Bill 2248, passed 63-21 in the House of Representatives and 22-3 in the Senate — large margins that reflected not only the GOP's large majorities in the state legislature. They also showed the pressure on Republican lawmakers to take some sort of action against UT.

The gender-neutral pronouns and the holiday celebrations posts both drew nationwide attention, particularly in conservative outlets. Commentators said they showed political correctness run amok and a hostility toward traditional Christian values.

Those complaints appeared to weigh heavier on lawmakers than a walkout earlier this week by hundreds of students on UT's Knoxville campus.

The vote sends the measure to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has not indicated whether he will sign it or veto it.

Measure Bans 'Sex Week'

Either way, it may not end disputes between the university and lawmakers. The measure also includes language meant to put an end to "Sex Week," UT's week-long lecture series meant to educate students on topics like date rape and safe sex.

It, too, has drawn national attention, to the dismay of conservatives in the state legislature.

University officials have maintained students have a First Amendment right to organize the event, which the school says does not use any taxpayer dollars. But the measure goes further, to prohibit any "support" for the program. 

The measure's sponsor, Jonesborough state Rep. Micah Van Huss, says that word should be interpreted to include granting them any space whatsoever to hold Sex Week.