University fails to clarify ‘diversity action plans': free speech org

On Nov. 11, FIRE filed a public records request with UT Knoxville after revealing that the university’s 'diversity action plans' might infringe on academic freedom.

FIRE first confronted the university in a Sept. 15 letter which targeted several issues they found with the proposals.

On Nov. 11, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) filed a public records request with the University of Tennessee—Knoxville (UT Knoxville) after revealing that the university’s “diversity action plans” might infringe on the academic freedom of both students and faculty.

FIRE specifically objected to "mandatory syllabi statements affirming diversity, equity, and inclusion; requirements that current or prospective faculty submit DEI statements; DEI-based course evaluations; and bias reporting systems which jeopardize the freedom of speech of faculty and students,” according to an official statement about the issue.

In a Nov. 3 email sent to FIRE’s Senior Program Officer Aaron Terr, UT Knoxville said that “the University has no diversity initiatives that violate the First Amendment rights and academic freedom of prospective and current faculty.” 

Unconvinced, the free speech watchdog filed a public records request to obtain more information. 

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UT Knoxville’s original diversity action plans had various policy objectives that threatened faculty members’ expressive rights by compelling them to affirm contested ideological frameworks,” Terr told Campus Reform

He also stated that, while it is unclear whether or not the university was intentionally dodging FIRE’s questions, “the university hasn’t given FIRE a straight answer as to whether it actually implemented any of the rights-threatening policy objectives in those plans, which were in place for some time.” 

“We hope our public records request will give us and the public a clearer picture of the state of academic freedom at the university,” he said.

FIRE first confronted the university in a Sept. 15 letter which targeted several issues they found with the proposals. 

It stated that several of the objectives may violate the First Amendment Rights of UT Knoxville faculty by expecting them to embrace and instruct ideologies they do not align with. 

UT Knoxville responded in a Sept. 26 letter by directing FIRE to its new “diversity action plans,” since the previous proposals from 2020 have since been removed from the university’s web page.

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In an Oct. 5 follow-up email, FIRE then asked if any “of the original Diversity Action Plans’ objectives cited in FIRE’s previous letter have—or will be—adopted into policy or otherwise implemented.” 

This sparked a back-and-forth correspondence between UT Knoxville and FIRE in which FIRE attempted to gain clarification about whether or not the new diversity action plans drawn from the previous set. 

Campus Reform contacted Melissa Tindell, Director of Media Relations at UT Knoxville, who declined to comment. 

Campus Reform previously reported on similar Diversity Action Plans at Princeton University—plans which resulted in the university seeking to “ensure” that it includes businesses that are operated primarily by people of color and LGBTQ+ members. 

Princeton University said that it will “establish a more diverse supplier base.” 

Campus Reform contacted every university, organization, and individual mentioned. This article will be updated accordingly. 

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