The state Senate Education Committee voted Wednesday to strip the University of Tennessee’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion of all but its federal funding and to transfer $8 million from the university’s administration into its agricultural extension service and rural outreach programs.
The committee approved an amendment by its chairwoman, Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, to the UT budget submitted by Gov. Bill Haslam that would have the effect of defunding the diversity office at UT Knoxville — the target of conservative ire since a pair of controversial Web posts regarding gender-neutral pronouns and inclusive holiday parties. The panel’s action isn’t final: it will require concurrence by the full Senate and the House before it could go into effect.
Anthony Haynes, UT’s vice president for government relations and advocacy, said after the meeting that university officials “certainly understand the motivation behind the amendment.”
“We’re hopeful that we can work it out before we pass the final budget in April,” Haynes said.
The amendment’s approval followed an earlier 2½-hour hearing by the House education committees on diversity issues at UT and the Tennessee Board of Regents system.
As passed, the amendment:
— Transfers $5 million from the funds appropriated to UT Knoxville to the UT Agricultural Extension Service for its programs and services. That’s the amount that the office of diversity and inclusion currently receives annually: $1.3 million on compliance and reporting activities dealing with federal law, and $3.7 million for campus diversity programming.
— Declares that “only federal funds shall be expended to support the office of diversity and inclusion” at UT Knoxville.
— Transfers $3 million from funds appropriated for administration and salaries on the Knoxville campus to UT Chattanooga and UT Martin (at $1.5 million each) “for the sole purpose of rural outreach programs.”
Gresham owns a cattle farm in Fayette County and faces a re-election challenge in this year’s Republican primary by Savannah Mayor Bob Shutt, who has said he’s running to bring more rural development to the eight-county 26th Senate District.
State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said today he supports the efforts of the Senate Education Committee to strip the University of Tennessee’s office of diversity and inclusion of all but its federal funding but isn’t sure whether the full General Assembly will ultimately go along.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam’s spokeswoman said the governor believes there’s a role for the office.
“The governor believes that, at times, UT’s office of diversity has gone off into issues it didn’t need to be focused on. That being said, he believes there is a role for the office, making sure there is equal opportunity for people to attend UT and graduate by creating a campus where people are free to come and learn,” said Jennifer Donnals, Haslam’s press secretary.
Ramsey, R-Blountville, told reporters that he favors the state budget amendment recommended late Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee, declaring in part that “Only federal funds shall be expended to support the office for diversity and inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.” The amendment was proposed by Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, who Ramsey appointed as education committee chairman and one of his closest lieutenants in the Senate.
“I don’t know what the end result of this is, but the very first thing is you’ve to get their (UT’s) attention. And I think they’ve done that,” Ramsey said. “I just don’t understand the usefulness of this office. What do they do every day on a day-to-day basis, other than liberal feel-good programs without actually accomplishing anything.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the House, but yes, I fully support it. I’m not going to predict that’s where it ends up. I wouldn’t say it’s symbolic. It’s symbolic in the fact that we’re sick and tired of the office of diversity telling us we can’t celebrate Christmas type of things. The majority of the Senate would be in favor of it. That’s just my gut feeling.”
At the end of the day, the Senate Education Committee voted to amend the governor’s proposed budget for UT by reassigning $8 million from the UT Knoxville budget to UT Extension and to rural outreach through UT Martin and UT Chattanooga. From its language – “only federal funds shall be expended to support the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville” – the amendment’s intent is clear and concerning. It is also important to note that the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at UT Knoxville receives no federal funding.