University of Tennessee Forced to Shutter its Diversity Office

The day after a bill diverting state funding from the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Office of Diversity and Inclusion became law May 20, UT announced it will temporarily close the office and eliminate four staff positions, including the position of vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, which has been held by Rickey Hall since 2013.

State lawmakers had been threatening to withhold funding from the office since last year, after staff posted a guide for using gender-neutral pronouns and promoted inclusive ways to celebrate holidays, which angered some Republican lawmakers.

The final draft of the bill diverts roughly $436,000 from the diversity office into a scholarship fund for minority engineering students. The bill passed through the Tennessee House and Senate in April before going to Gov. Bill Haslam. Per state law, Haslam had until Friday to sign or veto the bill. By doing neither, the bill automatically became law.

“Although I do not like the precedent of redirecting funds within a higher education institution’s budget, I find the ultimate outcome of the legislation less objectionable and am therefore letting it become law without my endorsement,” Haslam said in a statement.

The bill also bans state funding for the university’s annual Sex Week — which promotes open-minded and inclusive conversations about sex, sexuality, and relationships — and bars the university from diverting funding from other departments to the diversity office.

The law will affect the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for one year, from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017.

UT expressed its continued dedication to the office’s mission.

“This in no way diminishes our commitment to diversity and inclusion,” said Chancellor Jimmy Cheek in a press release. “We will use the coming year to determine how to more effectively advance diversity and inclusion on our campus.”

The day before the bill passed into law, the University of Washington announced that it had hired Rickey Hall as its next vice president for the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity and chief diversity officer.