Students plan walkout to protest cuts to UT Diversity and Inclusion Office

The Tennessee House of Representatives approved legislation Monday to cut funding for the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, inspiring students to stage a walkout.

HB 2248, which passed 66-22, would cut the diversity office’s full appropriation of $436,700 and reallocate the money to a minority engineering scholarship program and the purchase of “In God We Trust” decals for law enforcement vehicles. The bill must now be approved by the Senate, where companion legislation is scheduled for consideration at a committee hearing Tuesday afternoon.

[RELATED: TN legislators ponder cutting funds for Diversity and Inclusion, Sex Week]

In addition to the cuts, the bill also includes language intended to prevent UT from circumventing the legislature’s intent, specifying that no state funds shall be used “to promote the use of gender neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays, or to fund or support sex week,” even if the funding comes from a different office.

Lawmakers have been sparring with university administrators for months over HB 2248, which was introduced in January after lawmakers took exception to several initiatives sponsored by the Diversity Office, such as guidelines to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise” and a primer on gender-neutral pronouns, both of which were removed from the school’s website in response to public outrage.

[RELATED: Lawmakers: UT diversity office a ‘national embarrassment’]

[RELATED: Universities urge students to use gender-neutral pronouns]

[RELATED: Faculty Senate defends UT inclusive holiday party guidelines]

Another long-simmering issue, particularly for conservative legislators, has been UT’s annual “Sex Week” event, which this year featured workshops promoting both anal sex and BDSM. The Tennessee General Assembly responded to the first iteration of Sex Week in 2013 by cutting more than half the funding for the event, and finished the job the following year by requiring that it be funded solely through optional student fees.

[RELATED: UT-Knoxville Sex Week to feature ‘BDSM’ and ‘Butt Stuff’ workshops]

Opponents within the UT community, however, are loudly protesting the legislation, planning a “Mass Class Exit” event Tuesday afternoon that organizers hope will “send a message” to legislators that has apparently not been communicated by the numerous rallies that have taken place over the past few months.

“Our legislators know what the campus community wants, but they have failed to listen,” the event description states. “They continue to ignore what students, faculty, and workers at UT have repeatedly told them we need, more funding, and are instead stripping away people’s rights and privacy all over the state.”

Amusingly, the page also explains that rather than using the more-common term “walkout” in referring to the demonstration, “we are naming this event Mass Class Exit to refrain from using ableist language,in keeping with our commitment to intersectionality and collective liberation.”

The university’s student newspaper, The UT Daily Beacon, also received numerous letters-to-the-editor from student organizations and Student Government executives, all denouncing the cuts and extolling the virtues of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

[RELATED: UT Dean rallies faculty against bill to cut diversity funding]

Elizabeth Stanfield and Colleen Ryan, co-chairs of Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT), declared the group’s “firm opposition” to the legislation, saying, “diversity and inclusion are critical to our university, even if our state legislature doesn't think so,” and pledging that SEAT would participate in Tuesday’s walkout.

Panhellenic Council President Elisabeth Logan likewise expressed her opposition to the bill on behalf of the Greek community, though she stopped short of explicitly encouraging fraternity and sorority members to participate in demonstrations against it.

“Defunding the Office of Diversity and Inclusion would cause the recruitment and retention of the students who enrich and strengthen our community to plummet,” she claims. “And to the Tennessee Legislature, I encourage you to hear the student voice. Many students would be affected very negatively if the Office of Diversity and Inclusion were to lose its funding, and it is not right for you to decide what our experience holds.”

The President, Vice President, and Student Services Director of the UT Student Government Association also contributed a letter making substantially similar arguments, but in the context of a separate bill, SB 1902, that has been deferred to “summer study,” effectively tabling it for the remainder of the current legislative session.

“UT students need to realize that any given bill that threatens the sustainability of an office that offers our campus such an integral piece of its identity is a threat to us all,” the executives contend, asserting that even “students who had never heard about the Office before its funding was threatened will notice the void the moment it goes missing.”

Companion legislation in the Senate, SB 1912, is scheduled for consideration Tuesday afternoon at a hearing of the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee. This article will be updated once the Committee has finished deliberating.

UPDATE: The Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee recommended SB 1912 for passage, setting up an impending floor vote by the full Senate.

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