Lawmaker questions UT diversity spending

A Knoxville legislator is questioning the University of Tennessee’s annual spending of more than $4.7 million on salary and benefits for employees involved in diversity programs, contending both the total and some individual salaries are excessive and should be reviewed with an eye toward cuts.

“If we could cut that $4.7 million by $1.5 million a year, that would be $15 million over 10 years,” said Daniel, R-Knoxville. “That would be saving a lot of tuition dollars and a lot of taxpayer dollars” for other university needs.

Margie Nichols, UT vice chancellor for communications, said the diversity efforts are largely mandated by federal law and cover a wide array of programs benefiting women and minorities. UT officials believe the expenditures are warranted and are open to a review, she said.

The $4.7 million total may overstate expenditures because it includes gross salaries of staff who have duties other than diversity matters. Only about $2.55 million in salary and benefits is directly attributed to diversity activities, though Daniel says all figures may understate actual spending because it does not include related employee travel and other expenses.

At Daniel’s request, UT provided a list of budgeted spending on salaries and benefits of personnel involved in its diversity efforts.

Daniel, who said he was inspired to make the request by recent controversy over a UT website posting that encouraged the use of gender-neutral pronouns by students, sent a chart compiled from the UT information to fellow legislators, along with a memo. After legislator complaints, UT President Joe DiPietro had the website posting removed, though declaring UT diversity efforts in general justified.

In his memo to fellow legislators, Daniel notes the diversity spending can be broken down into “compliance” and “noncompliance” programs. Compliance programs are those designed to assure that UT is following federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination — quoting a listing on the diversity program’s website — “on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, physical or mental disability, or covered veteran status.”

Daniel said he especially questions the noncompliance spending, though the compliance spending should also be reviewed. Of the total $4.7 million, the memo designates about $2.55 million as “noncompliance.”

Nichols said the majority of money designated for diversity is tied in one way or the other to legal mandates whether designated “compliance” or “noncompliance” — and includes federal funding. It also ties into the university’s policy of providing a “welcoming environment” to all students regardless of their background, she said.

Initially, Martin said, any review by legislators will be on an informal basis.

“We’ll sit down with UT (administrators) and talk about it,” he said.

Ultimately, though, lawmakers could hold formal hearings and make changes to UT’s budget for the next year, he said.

“Many” fellow legislators have voiced concern after reading his memo, Daniel said.

Daniel said he has also discussed the diversity spending with Raja Jubran, a Knoxville businessman who currently serves as vice chairman of the UT board of trustees. Gov. Bill Haslam is officially chairman of the board, but Jubran effectively serves as chairman in the governor’s absence at meetings. Jubran expressed interest in diversity spending, Daniel said, and indicated it would be reviewed at the UT board’s next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 8-9 on the Knoxville campus.

Rickey Hall, UT vice chancellor for diversity, tops the listing in Daniel’s chart with salary and benefits totaling $217,252. For comparison, DiPietro’s base salary is listed on a UT website as $465,618; Nichols as $201,230. Daniel said Hall’s pay level seems excessive to him.

The listing of salary and benefits includes the percentage of each UT employee’s diversity-related responsibilities.

In Hall’s case, 100 percent of his duties are deemed to involve diversity efforts. But for some included on the list to reach a $4.7 million total, diversity activities amount to a small portion of the salary and benefits compared to their other responsibilities — some as little as 5 percent and a few who are assigned to participate in diversity matters on an apparently voluntary basis.

When eliminating the non-diversity activities involved in salary and benefits, the direct total paid by UT for diversity staffing is $2,549,883, according to the chart.

Of that, the UT Knoxville campus has the most, $1,667,195; followed by the Chattanooga campus with $498,084; Memphis with $208,184; Martin with $168,514; and the UT Space Institute and the UT Institute for Public Service combined with $7,904.

Note: The diversity spending chart prepared for Daniel is HERE. His memo to legislators HERE.