House, Senate agree on compromise cut to UT diversity funding

By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State lawmakers voted to send a message that they don’t agree with the sexually open and progressive views of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion on the University of Tennessee campus. So the Legislature on Thursday passed a bill stripping it of state funds — a total of nearly $337,000. The money will be used to fund minority scholarships instead.

Some socially conservative legislators had vowed to gut funding from the office for promoting Sex Week and after it recommended using gender-neutral pronouns on campus and advised against religious-themed parties and decorations.

The money would have gone to pay for the salaries of four people at the diversity office. The bill strips the office of funding for one year.

Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, raised concerns that lawmakers were sending too strong a message and that UT administrators would be disinclined to spend money on the diversity office after that one year because it attracted so much ire from the Legislature. He worried that the minority scholarships, along with funding for the diversity office would be gone even after the year is up.

But another lawmaker disagreed that the legislature had acted too harshly.

“This is a slap on the wrist compared to the foolishness that has come out of that office in the last few years,” Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said.

The university wants to go beyond the year with the scholarship program, said Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville.

“They want to continue this program,” Briggs said of UT administrators. “They think that they can use this as stimulus to bring more funds into this and make it a permanent program.”

Lawmakers almost sunk their own efforts to defund the office, because the House and Senate couldn’t agree where to put the nearly $337,000 stripped from the office. (Note: Other reports use the figure $436,000.) With the Legislature scheduled to adjourn this week, both chambers had to come to a consensus or their proposal would have failed.

The Senate passed a bill that would used the money taken from the diversity office to fund minority scholarships. The House passed a bill that would split the money between minority scholarships and a program to put “In God We Trust” decals on police vehicles.

A conference between six members of the House and Senate Thursday got heated before lawmakers agreed.

James (Micah) Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, was the House Sponsor of the bill who wanted to use some of the funds to pay for the “In God We Trust” decals. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, wanted all the money to be used for minority scholarships and he wasn’t going to budge.

“Why are we wasting money on decals when we could give it to the students for education?” Briggs asked Van Huss.

“It sounds like that’s your opinion — that we’re wasting money,” Van Huss replied. “I don’t think

‘In God We Trust’ is a waste.”

Van Huss wanted to know why Gardenhire’s bill only defunded the office for one year. But Gardenhire and others pointed out that his bill prevented UT from ever using state funds for Sex Week or to promote gender-neutral pronouns, or for promoting or inhibiting religious holidays.

And Gardenhire reminded them that the Legislature could always act in the future.

“But after one year,” Gardenhire said, “if UT doesn’t straighten up its act, then we come down on them harder.”

The House approved the compromise version 63-21, the Senate 27-3.

The News Sentinel has reaction from UT officials in its report, HERE. Excerpts:

“While we are disappointed that the Legislature chose to remove funds from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, we remain committed to creating a welcoming environment,” Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said in a statement released by the university.

…”While we appreciate what could have been an $8 million hit being reduced to $436,000, we continue to be concerned about the loss of those important inclusion and diversity programs impacted by this reduction,” (UT President Joe) DiPietro said in a statement. “We had frequent contact with elected officials over the course of the session, and we hoped the Legislature would understand our need to support and advance a culture of diversity and inclusion on our campuses.”