To Fund or Not to Fund: That is the Question in Tennessee

The University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville has, like nearly all large schools these days, an Office for Diversity and Inclusion (ODI). And like nearly all such offices, it has pushed an agenda that goes well beyond just making sure that “diverse” students aren’t harassed or in any way made to feel unwelcome.

Last year, two incidents in particular raised the ire of Tennessee residents and legislators.

The first occurred in September, when the ODI’s Pride Center published a document urging students and faculty members to abandon conventional English in favor of using “gender neutral” pronouns such as “ze” rather than “he” and “she” and “hir” and “zir” instead of “her” and “him.”  Why? Because doing so would be more welcoming to “people who do not identify within the gender binary.”

Many UT alums quickly voiced their disapproval, including Professor Paul Bonicelli of Regent University.

Bonicelli, writing on The Federalist, noted that colleges increasingly push notions like this rather than concentrating on education that actually adds value to society. Referring to the kind of university administrators who fill offices like ODI, Bonicelli says that stories like this “allow us to speculate that these bureaucrats might not have enough to do, or more likely they are eager to get on with the real agenda: to fundamentally transform society via the institutions of higher education.”

Echoing Orwell’s understanding of the importance of controlling the language, Bonicelli continued, “An ideal way to do that is to change the very words and meanings of the English language so as to obliterate tradition and cultural artifacts that offend them.”

Under public pressure, university officials quickly took the gender-neutral document down from the site, but did so defensively. Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall responded, “I don’t understand what the big deal is. We’re trying to make people feel included.” 

The next incident came in December when the ODI posted a memo entitled “Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace.” It admonished the UT community to “Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.” 

Again, many Tennesseans objected, among them state senator Delores Gresham. She was quoted in this Christian Science Monitor article, “By placing a virtual religious test regarding holiday events at this campus, every student who is a Christian is penalized.” 

Again, the UT administration quietly backed down, removing the message that parties with any religious connection were an exclusionary taboo. Administration spokeswoman Margie Nichols was quoted that “It just got in the way of things. We had to move forward.”

If UT’s top officials thought they had extinguished the opposition to the ODI, they were proven badly wrong when the state legislature met in January and the Senate Education Committee voted to remove all funding for it. The committee’s amendment would transfer $5 million from diversity funding into other UT programs in its Agricultural Extension Service.

That action was supported by Tennessee Lieutenant-governor Ron Ramsey, who is quoted in this Knoxville News story, “I just don’t understand the usefulness of this office. What do they do every day other than liberal feel-good programs without actually accomplishing anything?”

Local columnist and radio host George Korda wanted to find out if the ODI actually accomplishes anything and so invited Vice Chancellor Hall to appear on his “State Your Case” program. But as Korda observed in his February 29 piece, “I’m writing yet another column about the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion because the university won’t respond to questions or requests about its Office of Diversity and Inclusion.”

Rather than taking the opportunity to State Their Case, UT officials turned Korda down. The official who responded on behalf of the vice chancellor said that Hall wouldn’t go on the show because Korda “had already made up his mind.” But how could they know that? And even if it were true, shouldn’t academics be prepared—even eager—to explain their reasons to anyone? Good arguments have been known to change minds.

But while UT officials declined to speak with Korda, they’d been glad to speak with a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education for a friendly piece. University chancellor Jimmy Cheek, for example, said “I think we need to let our students talk about why it’s important to them to have diversity.” 

Perhaps Chancellor Cheek believes that legislators will be persuaded by students talking about their views on diversity, but they ought to be skeptical. Students aren’t necessarily good at knowing what is best for a university. Moreover, many have been led to believe that the only way to “have diversity” is for colleges (and other institutions) to focus on some tiny aspects of human difference.

Each human being is unique, differing in countless ways. Where our family trees may have begun is one of the least important ways we differ, but it is one that “diversity” offices and programs obsess over. The people who run them would have us believe that a campus couldn’t be a truly good educational environment without their efforts at promoting inclusion.

Whether that is true is the question Tennessee legislators should ask as they continue to work on the budget and decide whether to keep funding ODI. Objectively, has ODI made the campus better than it was? They should look for evidence and not accept emotional claims.

It’s worth keeping in mind that before the national diversity mania took hold, colleges enrolled students with—unavoidably—a vast array of differences. But instead of fixating on their racial (or any other) differences, schools just insisted that everyone abide by rules of civil behavior. That worked.

In the early 1970s, I attended a liberal arts college and the student body included foreign students, students from various minority populations, raging leftists and furious right-wingers, religious fundamentalists and agnostics, hunting enthusiasts and gun banners, hawks and doves, Packers fans and Bears fans, just to mention some of the diversity on campus. 

Despite the lack of any Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the students managed to get along. Everyone came into college aware that the world is full of people who are different (and not just in skin color) and that they’d be expected to act like decent adults. No one needed to be hectored about “diversity” because just about every student had already learned to respect (or at least tolerate) differences.

You can still find lots of small colleges where there isn’t enough money for a campus diversity bureaucracy, and yet you don’t find that their students are unable to cope with our diverse nation. On those campuses, you hardly ever see the kind of antagonism that offices like ODI are presumed necessary to prevent.

On the contrary, a good case can be made that the focus on diversity is not just a waste of money, but actually counterproductive. As Peter Bregman points out in this Psychology Today article, “Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it…. When people divide into categories to illustrate the idea of diversity, it reinforces the idea of the categories.”

What he’s driving at is the way the drumbeat about diversity encourages students to fixate on their group identity and become hypersensitive to any possible slight. It’s impossible not to notice that the colleges that have had the worst trouble recently (most notably Yale and the University of Missouri) were also deeply invested in “diversity” programs. 

Apparently, the more a school fusses over the inescapable fact that people are diverse, the more likely that it will experience campus turmoil—turmoil that will then be cited as the justification for still more diversity programs. 

Tennesseans are right to question whether ODI produces educational benefits that are worth the cost.