Dr. Joe DiPietro is president of the University of Tennessee―Knoxville.
Tennessee state Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) has withdrawn a controversial bill that proposed stripping the funding from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s diversity office of all state funding — more than $1 million — for the coming fiscal year.
Republican lawmakers had been unhappy, to put it mildly, with the office’s advice that more neutral words and language be used when referring to occasions historically commonplace and deeply rooted in the university’s history. References to Christmas celebrations, for example, should be changed to language that links the annual gatherings less to a religion.
The disgruntled lawmakers, citing the diversity effort itself as an attack on Christianity, soon had enough support from the state Senate leadership to move a bill through the Senate Education Committee stripping the university administration of $8 million, the amount designed for diversity programs and compliance reporting.
The Senate bill declared “only federal funds shall be expensed to support the office of diversity and inclusion” at UT Knoxville, a provision the university president, Dr. Joe DiPietro, promptly noted had little meaning since the university office receives no federal funds.
The House version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Micah Van Huss (R―Jonesborough) would have redirected $100,000 from the diversity office to pay for the school to create “In God We Trust” decals and send them to law enforcement agencies around the state.
In his annual “State of UT” speech, updating students, alums and other supporters of the institution, DiPietro was candid about the risks of halting the institution’s pursuit of diversity and inclusion, asserting they were key to the university’s aim of becoming a world-class institution.
“ … To move close to this kind of world-class reputation as a university of choice, it is imperative that we maintain an environment in which freedom of expression, tolerance, personal accountability and responsible citizenship are an integral part of the living, learning and working experience.
“Our concept of and commitment to diversity extend beyond raced and ethnicity,” DiPietro said. “Diversity encompasses many other aspects of this ideal — including, but not limited to gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, geography, physical ability, socioeconomic status, and family educational attainment, among others.”
DiPietro and UT System Chancellor Jimmy Cheek made that pitch numerous times in recent months, including during a special legislative hearing earlier this month at the state capital in Nashville.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has spoken out against dismantling diversity funding at higher education instructions.
This time a year ago, the state of Tennessee was drawing higher education attention coast to coast for its ambitious new program to boost college attendance by providing tuition-free education for any citizen of the state who goes to community college. The move was considered a bold step forward at a time when creative ideas were being sought to move America forward on higher education.
Contributing: The Associated Press