UT Campus Groups Form Pro-Diversity Collective to Fight ‘Hostile Climate’

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Student protests in the heart of the administration building. Threats to cut funding by state legislators. Calls for resignations of top university officials by politicians. Possible loss of university accreditation.

Since August 2015, all these disputes and more have assailed the University of Tennessee, pushing a school once primarily known as an SEC football powerhouse onto the front pages of the Huffington Post and Fox News websites over issues such as advisories on the use of gender-neutral pronouns and how to host a non-denominational holiday party. And now, amid an effort by state legislators to conduct a full-blown investigation of UT’s diversity efforts, pro-diversity student groups are uniting to make their own voices heard in the ongoing brouhaha.

If you somehow managed to avoid the controversies, here’s the short version: In August, a post written by Donna Braquet, the director of the Pride Center, a resource center for LGBT+ students at UT, asked that professors and students consider using gender-neutral pronouns for anyone who requests it. In early December, a blog post from the Office for Diversity and Inclusion asked that any office holiday parties that month be inclusive of all employees by making sure the party is “not a Christmas party in disguise.” After a severe backlash from Tennessee politicians—local, state, and national—both posts were taken down by the university. 

Removing them made many students, in particular non-Christian and members of the LGBT+ community, feel that their views and issues do not matter, says Elizabeth Stanfield, a senior at UT double majoring in anthropology and geography. Stanfield represents Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, the student organization that promotes Sex Week.

“They’re not rules anyone has to follow, they’re not dramatic.… Seeing that kind of backlash over baby steps really says to them that people are so reluctant to make anyone feel included here,” she says. “How would the (legislature) feel about bigger things?”

In response to the deletion of the posts, the perceived lack of support by the administration for Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Rickey Hall, and what activists call a hostile climate on campus for minorities, Stanfield and leaders of other campus groups have formed UT Diversity Matters this semester to organize for marginalized students. It is a coalition of 16 faculty and student organizations, including the Black Student Union, Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, and the UT College Democrats, united in calling for the UT administration to better promote and protect marginalized students.

The coalition is demanding that the administration publicly apologize for taking down the posts, that it openly support diversity initiatives, and that it puts in place mandatory LGBT+ training for all new students, faculty, and staff. Despite the political climate and backlash by conservative state politicians, the demands are not so unrealistic, Stanfield says, as the coalition is asking for policies that already exist at other universities. UCLA, for example, has a mandatory diversity class credit.

But getting their demands heard might be another issue. Under the current climate, Stanfield says many students feel alienated and ignored during these conversations.

“Legislators are part of this conversation,” Stanfield says, “The administration is part of this conversation. But students just aren’t mentioned. The legislators even talk about us as if we’re children and don’t have any idea what we’re talking about.”

A scheduled Jan. 29 meeting between coalition leaders and UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek fell through due to what administrators said was a scheduling error. Though planned weeks in advance, some last-minute confusion and miscommunication over the location of the meeting resulted in Cheek failing to show up and leaving campus by early afternoon, leaving many students upset over what they saw as the chancellor avoiding students.

A new meeting between Cheek and the coalition has been scheduled for early February. Colleen Ryan, a junior in global studies and a member of the coalition from SEAT, says the group is optimistic this one will turn out better than the last.

“We’re approaching these talks in good faith and we’re hoping the administration is doing the same,” Ryan says.

Beyond being ignored, some students—in particular members of the LGBT+ community at UT—say they feel threatened and uncomfortable by the climate. In mid-January, the Pride Center was broken into by an unknown trespasser and glass strewn across the floor.

While the University of Tennessee Police Department is not investigating the act as a hate crime, Braquet says the break-in is not an isolated incident. Over the past two years, the center has lost three flags, a plastic sidewalk sign, and a banner to vandals.

While she admits the possibility that the acts were not done out of hate, students at the resource center feel threatened all the same, she says.

“When you start to add them up [you] see that it’s a pattern,” Braquet says, “And then it’s leading up to an actual attack on the building and space itself, that is actually frightening to students that [should] feel like this is one of the safest places on campus.

“They feel like they are being targeted. That LGBT people are being targeted.”

The Princeton Review ranked UT-Knoxville as the 5th most LGBT unfriendly campus in the country for 2015, a list including both public and private schools in the U.S.

While pressure is building against diversity initiatives from Tennessee politicians, UT has outwardly been trying to improve its approach to minorities, one method of which was establishing the vice chancellor for diversity position in 2013.

Last September, a campus task force recommended UT add diversity and inclusion as a new, sixth metric on its long-term goal of becoming a top 25 public research university.

The task force recommended UT work to recruit and retain more students of racial and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds, have a more diverse faculty and staff with an emphasis on equal gender representation, and improve the campus climate to make the school welcoming to all.

“Our aspiration to prepare students to lead on national and global levels requires that they be exposed to different cultures and backgrounds during their experience at UT,” according to the document.

In 2014, 23 percent of all UT Knoxville students identified as non-white. About 19 percent of the entering freshman class that year were minority students, the largest being African Americans at 8 percent, according to statistics from the university.

The overall percentage of black undergraduate students at UT has fallen over the past several years, from 8.6 percent in 2006 to 6.9 percent in 2015.

Following the holiday post in December, Rep. Eddie Smith and other Republican Knoxville legislators asked for a joint hearing into the UT-Knoxville Office for Diversity and Inclusion. The hearing has been approved by House Speaker Beth Harwell but must still be approved by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. (In response to the holiday post in December, Ramsey called for “heads to roll” at the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, saying Hall should step down.)

“It’s concerns a lot of the constituents have, which is, ‘What exactly is the purpose of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion?’” Smith says. “There’s an understanding out there that it really is just for one section of our society, and I think the reality of it is that it actually helps a broader scope of our society, and allowing that to come out.”

He continues: “We may find some areas that it [the Office for Diversity and Inclusion] is inefficient and we need to tighten those up,” Smith says. “And we may find some areas that we need to double down on and put some more emphasis on.”

According to UT’s own numbers, diversity spending rounds out to $5.5 million, or about 0.25 percent of the UT System’s $2.1 billion budget.

Smith says the committee is not trying to micromanage the university’s budget, rather is just asking for the office to report to the General Assembly. However, there has been some question about whether legislative action could impact the school’s accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which mandates that universities be able to operate without political interference. But Smith says that because UT operates partly from taxpayer money from the General Assembly, the state Legislature is not an outside influence.

If approved, the committee will also be investigating diversity offices at Tennessee’s other public universities, Smith says.

“This is not meant to be a ‘gotcha’ kind of hearing,” Smith says. “I understand the UT students’ concerns that there may not be enough diversity, but that will come out in the hearing if we’re able to have it.”

On Jan. 20, state Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, and state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, also filed a bill with the General Assembly to limit UT’s total spending on diversity, multicultural, and sustainability to $1.5 million per year at UT-K, and only $2.5 million for the entire UT System.

A separate bill filed by state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and state Rep. James Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, would end all state funds from going to the Office for Diversity and Inclusion and instead direct the money to place decals of the national motto “In God We Trust” on local and state law enforcement vehicles.

What does Rickey Hall—who, as the Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, has been at the center of the dispute—think of all this? It’s difficult to find out. Since the controversy blew up in December, he has lost the ability to independently schedule meetings with the media; UT announced that he would be “counseled.” (The student coalition also demands that Hall regain his ability to post independently on the website.)

However, in a pre-media-lockdown interview with Hall in September about his role on campus and how he wants to facilitate diversity education, he tied his efforts to making the university more economically competitive.

“We have a responsibility as an institution for every student we admit here to try and make sure that this space is welcoming,” Hall says. “Now people are talking about [diversity] as an economic imperative, how it helps bring business and creates a healthier state.”

For UT to be successful and adapt to the nation’s shifting demographics, the school must better recruit students from families that have not traditionally attended college so that the country can replace its aging, educated, and mostly white professionals, Hall says.

By 2060, non-Hispanic whites are projected to no longer make up the majority population of the U.S. as other minorities, in particular Hispanics, grow in number. Many large corporations already emphasize diversity, and if UT’s graduates already understand inclusiveness, they will be more attractive to future employers, Hall says.

“Go look at the Fortune 500 companies, look at what they’re doing,” Hall says. “How many of them have diversity councils? How many employ resource groups around specific identify groups? Why are they doing that?”

At least one academic paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that workforces that are more culturally diverse stimulate and enhance economies, while societies with a more homogeneous population lag behind.

UT did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Hall on the current atmosphere, how the bills may affect UT’s top 25 aspirations, or how the university will respond to the student demands.


UPDATE, Feb. 3, 2016: A “Your University Is Under Attack” protest against state proposals to privatize UT jobs and to strip diversity program funding has been announced for Friday, Feb. 5 at 4 p.m. at the UT Humanities Amphitheater (1115 Volunteer Blvd.). It will be a joint rally with members of the UT Faculty Senate, UT Diversity Matters, United Campus Workers, and the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

McCord Pagan is a graduate of the University of Tennessee who now works as a news assistant at Law360 in New York. He can be reached at mccord.pagan@gmail.com.

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