Threats by Tennessee lawmakers to defund the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion could have lasting impacts on the school’s academic standing if those representatives make good on their promises.
Several conservative legislators have called for action since that office published suggestions online earlier this month for making sure campus holiday parties did not emphasize one particular religion. In part, the recommendations (which have since been updated) advised staff to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise,” and warned against participating in things like “Secret Santa” or “Dreidel.”
That advice has sparked controversy from Nashville to Washington, D.C., making national headlines in the process. All nine Republican members of Congress representing Tennessee have denounced the posting, along with a number of East Tennessee state representatives. Some have called for the resignation or firing of Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall (who heads the Office of Diversity), his boss Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, and members of the board of trustees who oversee the University of Tennessee system.
“The people on the far left who claim to be tolerant seem to be tolerant of everything except traditional Christianity,” U.S. Congressman John Duncan, R-Strawberry Plains, said in a statement earlier this month. “They don’t object to Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any other religion’s traditions. But they go unhinged on anything that hints at traditional Christianity. They try to take down Crosses and Christian emblems. It is a shame and very sad. And it is extremism.”
Responding early to criticism, Cheek said the response had been overblown, noting that the university had no set guidelines for holiday parties and these were merely advisory suggestions for faculty and staff.
“We are in no way trying to dismiss this very important Christian holiday,” he said in a statement. “As a diverse campus, we do promote ways to be more inclusive of all cultures and religions. I am disappointed that our efforts to be inclusive have been totally misconstrued.”
Other elected officials see a chance to reign in the Office of Diversity by curtailing its funding. State Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Johnson City, says he started drafting legislation seeking to defund the office earlier this year after it drew ire for another online posting, one advocating the use of gender-neutral pronouns that some transgender and LGBT students prefer. His idea is to take a portion of the estimated $5.5 million that goes to UT diversity efforts across the state each year and set up a voluntary fund to pay for state and local law enforcement officials to have “In God we trust” decals placed on their government-issued work vehicles.
“I am not opposed to creating an environment where students of all backgrounds can find a place. However, this is NOT what the so-called Office of Diversity is doing,” Van Huss said in a post to his LordPickle Facebook page. “They are not celebrating diversity, they are wiping it out. It is the office of Political Correctness. Sadly, being a student with strong Judeo-Christian values, who wants to observe traditional celebrations, is no longer politically correct at UT.”
However, if the state Legislature follows through in passing his bill, or if UT administrators are removed by its board due to outside political pressure, those actions could potentially impact on the university’s standing with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges, an organization that accredits colleges throughout the Southeast.
“If the Legislature were to take action, there is one accreditation standard that we could be called on the carpet for and found noncompliant,” says Mary Albrecht, an associate vice provost who oversees accreditation for the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus. “That’s section 3.2.4, which specifically states, ‘the governing board is free from undue influence from political, religious, or other external bodies and protects the institution from such influence.’”
SACS spokeswoman Pamela Cravey says issues over outside influence have factored into compliance checks for various universities in the past, but it’s impossible to say what—if any—impact the current situation could have on UT until it plays out.
“There are so many variables in this one, like how was it done, how is it proven, why did it happen,” Cravey says. “It’s just hard to predict something that hasn’t happened yet.”
Accreditation is technically a voluntary process that allows universities and colleges to demonstrate they meet minimum standards on everything from coursework to hiring practices. It also allows students to apply for federal financial aid and may influence the availability of grants from some federal agencies and other organizations. University of Tennessee campuses maintain separate accreditations. (UT Martin last week was placed on a 12-month academic probation for failing standards related to evidence of institutional effectiveness and general education competencies.)
Universities are fully evaluated on more than 70 accreditation standards every 10 years, with a mid-term report due every five years. Falling short of just one of those standards can lead a school to being monitored or placed on probation, depending on the situation, until the issue is corrected. UT Knoxville was fully accredited most recently in 2014.
Citing similar concerns, the University of Tennessee Knoxville Faculty Senate last week unanimously passed a resolution calling on Gov. Bill Haslam (who chairs the board of trustees that oversees the university system) to “assert his support for the processes and procedures already in place” for managing the university.
“We’re in an abusive relationship right now with the Legislature,” says Candace White, a UTK professor and Faculty Senate member. “They hold the economic purse strings while we just keep apologizing and we don’t even stand up for ourselves. I think our administration just feels like it can’t.”
In a release last week, UT officials acknowledged missteps and said it had made changes to help “prevent further poorly worded communications” in the future, including counseling Hall and moving oversight of the Office of Diversity’s website to Vice Chancellor for Communications Margie Nichols.
Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.
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