Tennessee Representatives Pass Bill to Defund UT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion

After months of scrutinizing efforts by the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Tennessee House of Representatives approved a bill Monday that would strip state funding from the office.

The bill passed with a 66-22 vote after an hour of debate, with overwhelming Republican support. The decision comes several months after Republican lawmakers first threatened to defund UT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion for what they said was an attempt by the office to “eliminate Christianity” from the holidays.

In December, the office’s website published recommended best practices for organizing inclusive workplace holiday celebrations, which it later removed. The office has also been criticized for promoting the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

Supporters of the bill, including its sponsor Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, claim that the office’s efforts have the opposite of their intended effect.

“Lately, the actions of this office have been more about advancing a particular worldview than about creating an environment where everybody can feel welcome,” he said. “This office in no way reflects the values of my constituents, at least, and I don’t think the vast majority of Tennesseans.”

Under the bill, $100,000 of the office’s funding would go toward a program to decal law enforcement vehicles with the phrase “In God We Trust,” while the remaining $336,000 would go toward minority scholarships. Before being amended Monday morning, the bill allocated all funds to the decal program.

However, Van Huss said that the bill would not prevent other offices and departments at UT from funding diversity efforts as needed.

Speaking against the legislation, Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, said it is wrong for lawmakers to micromanage UT’s budget, also stating that students view the bill as an attack on diversity at the school.

“Let’s let the university trustees run the University of Tennessee,” he said. “Let’s make sure that we’re hiring qualified administrators to run the university, and let’s let our students be critical thinkers.”

The state Senate is considering its own version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenshire, R-Chattanooga, which would divert all of the diversity office’s funds to minority scholarships. The Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee is scheduled to discuss the legislation Tuesday.

Differences between versions of the bill would need to be worked out before it could become law.

Many UT students have spoken out against the legislation, most recently using Facebook to call on other students and faculty to come together to protest the proposal on Tuesday.

“For months our campus community has been rallying together day in and day out,” one organizer wrote on Facebook. “It’s time for the legislature to stop interfering at UT, and it’s time for our administration to commit to real progress for diversity on our campus.”

UPDATE: Tennessee’s Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee approved its own version of the bill on Tuesday, with a 9-2 vote, which would divert all funding from UT’s diversity office to minority scholarships for engineering students; it would also bar the university from using state funds to host its annual Sex Week programming or promote the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Both the House and Senate will have to agree on a version of the bill before it can become law.