University of Tennessee diversity funding bill allowed to become law

Richard Locker

Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the bill that diverts about $445,882 from the University of Tennessee’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion to minority engineering scholarships to become law without his signature, his office announced Friday.

"This bill received considerable debate and discussion during legislative session, and the final form of HB 2248 was revised so that its primary effect is to redirect administrative funding for the Office for Diversity and Inclusion for one year into scholarships for minority engineering students," Haslam said in an email statement that announced he was returning the bill to the General Assembly unsigned. "Although I do not like the precedent of redirecting funds within a higher education institution’s budget, I find the ultimate outcome of the legislation less objectionable and am therefore letting it become law without my endorsement."

House Bill 2248:

  • Reallocates "all funds in the budget of the office of diversity and inclusion" at UT-Knoxville for fiscal year 2016-17 into scholarships for minority students in engineering programs. That budget contained about $436,000 in the 2015-16 school year. The UT Board of Trustees has not yet approved budgets for 2016-17.
  • Bans UT from spending state funds "to promote the use of gender-neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays, or to fund or support Sex Week," most of which had already occurred.

UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek told the campus community in an email Friday about the cut.

"It saddens me to share with you that a new state law requires us to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017," Cheek said. "This means no funds can go to operate the office."

Cheek said the law doesn't permit other funds to operate the office, and as a result, there will be a reorganization of various diversity efforts on the campus. "The Pride Center will remain a gathering place for students but it will no longer be staffed by university employees," he said.

The chancellor and university spokeswoman Margie Nichols said officials are still trying to determine how the other portions of the law affect the university, including next year's Sex Week.

"I know there will be more questions, some of which have not been resolved," Cheek said. "This in no way diminishes our commitment to diversity and inclusion. The new law doesn't impact most of the funding for those efforts."

The bill has a dual set of roots, one growing Sex Week activities on the Knoxville campus and the other from a newsletter and a web posting by the diversity office last year.

Republican lawmakers denounced the first Sex Week in 2013, a wide-ranging set of events, programs and discussion panels — some with salacious titles — on sexuality, sexual assault prevention and sexually transmitted diseases and other topics, including sexual abstinence. The statehouse outcry prompted UT to pull any state funding from the event, which was mostly funded by student activities fees and donations.

After failing to kill Sex Week in 2014, lawmakers forced the UT Board of Trustees to let students "opt out" of having a portion of their activity fees used for student programming. More than 80 percent of students have opted in annually since they were given the option. The event continued in 2015 and this spring, funded by students and donations. Lawmakers were relatively quiet — until August.

At the start of fall semester in August, the UT Pride Center’s newsletter suggested that instructors learn students’ preferred names and pronouns in an effort to be more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. The newsletter said not everyone thinks in traditional male-female terms and may not identify with the gender listed for them on class rosters, generated by student information systems. It noted that some prefer pronouns such as xe, xym and xyr.

Conservatives went ballistic, demanded the diversity office be "defunded" and lawmakers scheduled a Nashville hearing in the fall.

As that furor was dying down, the diversity office posted on its website a "Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace" memo that suggested — but did not require — ways to make non-Christian university employees feel welcome at holiday office parties on campus. Most were no different from recommendations from UT administrators in prior years but the web post’s suggestions that office parties not be a "Christmas party in disguise" and discouraging an "emphasis on religion and or culture" and "secret Santa exchanges" first set off U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, R-Tenn., who went on TV to charge it was political correctness run amok.

Cheek and UT President Joe DiPietro ordered the posts removed and required the diversity office to get administration approval for potentially controversial web postings. But as the legislative session began in January, Republicans remained outraged and held more hearings.

When demands to "defund" diversity programs first surfaced  in the fall, the discussion revolved around a much larger $19 million figure spent throughout public higher education, including such diversity efforts as scholarships and faculty recruitment. In March, the Senate Education Committee narrowed its focus and recommended taking $8 million only from UT diversity programs.

On campus, students protested the actions in Nashville. And UT officials maintained their commitment to diversity efforts.

The compromise finally approved by the legislature on April 21 was much narrower, diverting money from the diversity office into scholarships for one year only and banning the use of state funds for Sex Week, which UT had already done. The House approved the final version 63-21, the Senate 27-3.