UT Knoxville at Odds with State Conservatives Over Inclusive Language

The University of Tennessee (UT) Knoxville is under fire from some state residents after its Office for Diversity and Inclusion posted a guide to pronouns for transgender people on its website. Rumors circulated that the university was consequently banning the use of traditional gender-based pronouns such as “he” or “she.”

Republican legislators and conservative organization Family Action Council of Tennessee vowed to take action against the university. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, called the pronoun guide “the clearest example of political correctness run amok that I have seen in quite some time.”

UT system President Joe DiPietro ordered the Office for Diversity and Inclusion to remove the guide from its website following the backlash. He also said further guidance on campus-wide policy must first receive approval from his cabinet before it may be published.

“Despite the aggressive efforts by UT Knoxville to communicate the fact that the campus does not require the use of gender-neutral pronouns, I am deeply concerned about the attention this matter continues to receive and the harm it has had on the reputation of the University of Tennessee,” DiPietro said in a letter to the university’s board of trustees.

“The social issues and practices raised by the Office for Diversity and Inclusion are appropriate ones for discussion on a university campus,” he added. “However, it was not appropriate to do so in a manner that suggests it is the expectation that all on campus embrace these practices.”

Allowing students to select pronouns by which they prefer to be called — a policy that has been showing up on campuses across the country — serves to make transgender students feel more welcome in class and on campus. Some transgender people, for example, prefer the gender-neutral “ze” or “hir,” rather than “he” or “she.”

Transgender advocates recommend guidance on pronouns like the chart used by UT Knoxville, which also suggests that professors ask students, rather than assume, how they wish to be referred to in class.

Rickey Hall, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at UT Knoxville, responded to the confusion by publishing a clarification.

“There is no mandate or official policy to use [that] language,” Hall said in a statement. “Neither the university nor the Office for Diversity and Inclusion has the power or authority to mandate use of gender-inclusive pronouns.”

“There has been a collective shift in understanding — as an institution and [as] a nation — of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression,” he continued. “With change come opportunities for dialogue and engagement. It is important to remember the impact language can have on individuals and communities.”