A Legislative Attack on Diversity at the University of Tennessee

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has been the center of a number of controversies this academic year. In September, it was forced to take down a guide to gender neutral pronouns under order by the system president, Joe DiPietro. This order came despite the fact that the Office of Diversity was handing down no mandate, only encouraging the campus community to consider how pronouns interact with gender identity. The backlash in conservative east Tennessee was quick, and harsh.

This controversy only primed the pump for another at the end of the Fall semester. Heading into holiday party season, the Office of Diversity posted a set of suggestions (just suggestions!) for how to have inclusive seasonal parties on our religiously- and ethnically-diverse campus. The burden of pluralism proved too much for Tennessee’s politicians, and a row arose with GOP opportunists going as far as to call for the resignation of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Vice Chancellor for Equity and Diversity Rickey Hall. The Chancellor came out relatively unscathed, though the same can’t be said for Vice Chancellor Hall. In response to this second controversy, Cheek office released a statement saying that Hall had been “counseled,” and that the website of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion had been placed under the editorial control of the Office of Communications. This indignity, in which a Vice Chancellor of the University has lost control of the campus voice on the very real and important issues under his authority is apparently not enough for some in the Tennessee General Assembly. In the midst of the controversy, state representative Micah Van Huss called for defunding diversity efforts in the UT system, and using that money to paint “In God We Trust” on all state and local law enforcement vehicles. That didn’t happen, but a new pair of bills introduced for this legislative session is taking what may well be a more pernicious approach.

SB 1902 (pdf) and HB 2066 were introduced in the past week by Senator Frank Nicely and Representative Martin Daniel respectively. Both of them serve the Knox County area, home to the main campus of the University of Tennessee. This bill seeks to do four things: 1. Restrict spending on diversity staff, administration, and programming at all University of Tennessee campuses to a total of $2.5M; 2. Implement onerous reporting requirements on all expenditures on staff, administration, and programming in support of “diversity, multiculturalism, and sustainability”; and, 3. Prevent all employees of the University system not hired explicitly for diversity work from engaging diversity programming during work hours; and  4. Restricting all diversity staff and administration to minority student and faculty recruitment, but not actual hiring processes. The Knoxville campus would be restricted to 60% of the $2.5M, or $1.5M, leaving a paltry $1m for the other campuses and entities (UT Chattanooga, UT Martin, the UT Space Institute, the UT Health Sciences Center, the Institute of Agriculture, and the Institute of Public Service).

To put this in explicit fiscal context, current the UT system spends more than $20M on diversity staff and programming on all campuses combined. Of that, some $16M goes towards scholarships for minority and first generation college students, while the rest is spent on federal and state reporting requirements, administration, and programming. Programming here includes all kinds of diversity-related intellectual and cultural content. If anything, this is way to little for a system with a total budget of around $1.3 billion.

I teach Latin American History at UT, and looking closely at the bill one could interpret the content of my courses, which are without question multicultural by the standards of the state of Tennessee, as violating Section I Part b.2:

An employee of the University of Tennessee system or one (1) of its institutions whose primary responsibilities and duties are in areas unrelated to diversity, multicultural, or sustainability programs shall not participate in diversity, multicultural, or sustainability programs during the times when the employee is to perform work duties.

This is astoundingly invasive into the daily operations and intellectual pursuits of the university, in part because it is so poorly and generally written. It also would appear to violate the bylaws of the Board of Trustees, which establish the financial, operational, and intellectual authorities in the system. As noted in Section I of the bylaws, by statutory authority the Board of Trustees,

which is the governing body of The University of Tennessee, shall have full and complete control over its organization and administration, also over its constituent parts and its financial affairs.

The authority over budgetary line items does not, in fact, reside with the Legislature. And, on curricular questions, which I would argue include diversity programming, the authority doesn’t even reside with the Board of Trustees but with the faculty. Section 2 Part A of the bylaws states that the Board shall,

Establish policies controlling the scope of the educational opportunities to be offered by the University and also policies determining its operation in general; however, the planning and development of curricula shall be the function of the faculties;

Finally on the bill itself, Section I Part D would put significant restrictions on diversity officials at all of the campuses, reducing their jobs to little more than an advisory role in recruitment:

Employees of the University of Tennessee system or one (1) of its institutions whose duties are related to diversity, multicultural, or sustainability programs, shall only work and have duties in areas related to:

(A) Nondiscrimination; (B) Recruitment of minority students; and (C) Recruitment of minority faculty or administrators.

(2) Although employees whose duties are related to diversity, multicultural, or sustainability programs may work on recruitment of minority faculty or administrators, they may not otherwise be involved in the hiring of faculty or administrators for the University of Tennessee system or any of its institutions.

It’s worth noting here that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus and the whole higher education system in the state of Tennessee has a long and troubled history with employment discrimination as documented by the Geier vs. State of Tennessee case, which was filed in 1968 and lasted something like 32 years, ending with a consent decree under which the State of Tennessee agreed to allocate $77M in state funds for diversity initiatives across Tennessee higher ed. Racial discrimination did not trigger this current backlash against diversity at UTK, but the net affect of this bill will set Tennessee higher ed back from the advances made in the wake of Geier. Furthermore, the backlash is rooted in a political intolerance of religious and sexual pluralism.

The very existence of bills like this which are a reaction to movements toward greater university inclusivity demonstrate the need for doubling down on our diversity efforts.


I say above that racial discrimination was not a trigger for this particular assault on diversity in the University of Tennessee system, but is undoubtedly still at the root of this proposal. A colleague pointed me to a 2013 report on Senator Niceley that I had totally forgotten. In November 2013, Niceley was a Featured Speaker at the Southern National Convention, an offshoot of the League of the South. Both of these groups are considered neo-confederate hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Quoting the announcement of his participation by the SNC:

[Niceley] will provide several proposals for legislation which Delegates can take back to their respective State legislatures. One of Senator Niceley’s proposals is to have the State legislature nominate US Senatorial candidates. This would change the electoral dynamics of the US Senate as the Senators would have to be more responsive to the States rather than that nebulous concept of “the people.”

Every attention will be given to ideas which promote the Sovereignty of the several Southern States.

That last bit is coded speech for secession, which the League of the South advocates and Niceley has gone on record in the Tennessean supporting.



Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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3 comments on “A Legislative Attack on Diversity at the University of Tennessee
  1. Misty Anderson says:

    Thanks so much for this piece! We need more voices to defend the good work going on at UT.

  2. […] the end of January I posted here about a legislative attempts to defund diversity staff and programming in the University of […]

  3. ciedie aech says:

    This attack on diversity — as experienced at the university level — mimics the horrific test-score divisions levied on public schools, especially those serving students with lowest income. For so many long years, now, a “benevolent” NCLB/R2T school reform has allowed much of what you are tying to expose at the post-secondary level. As I tried to write about my experiences of being a veteran teacher working inside low-incomes schools, it soon became clear that I was writing not simply about school reform — but about school reform and the Racial Divide.

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