University of Tennessee chancellor, president defend diversity programs

In a letter to students and staff Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and President Joe DiPietro say they plan to fight the Tennessee Senate Education Committee on the bill to strip funding to the Office for Diversity and Inclusiuon

University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek (Left) and University of Tennessee President Dr. Joe DiPietro (Right), Courtesy University of Tennessee

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and President Joe DiPietro said they are working to reinstate funding to the University of Tennessee Office for Inclusion and Diversity.

A bill to strip all state funding from the University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion passed unanimously in the Tennessee Senate Education Committee Wednesday. It would reassign $8 million from University of Tennessee Knoxville’s budget for the office to the extension and rural outreach through the University of Tennessee’s Martin and Chattanooga campuses.

Previous story: Senate panel votes to strip funding from UT diversity office

In a joint letter to University of Tennessee students and staff Cheek and Dipietro said the amendment’s intent was “clear and concerning” because it stated that “only federal funds shall be expended to support the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.” however they point out that the Office of Diversity and Inclusion receives no federal funding.

“While the amendment was unexpected and is disappointing, several additional steps remain in the process toward passage of the state appropriations bill by the General Assembly,” said Cheek and DiPietro in the letter. “We are in contact with legislators and will continue to vigorously seek to resolve issues so that reinstatement of the funding as originally proposed by the governor occurs before the legislature approves the final state budget in April.”

More: Read a full copy of the letter

The chancellor and president urge students to join their advocacy network.

DiPietro defended diversity programs during Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee hearing.

“So we don’t have bananas thrown at black students who are coming to our campus to be recruited. So we don’t have cotton balls thrown about the Rison Black Cultural Center. So we don’t have racial slurs or homophobic epithets on dormitories or buildings,” said DiPietro to lawmakers.

“It’s 2016, I’m not really sure why I’m still being asked why diversity matters,” said graduate student Kristen Godfrey.

Many students feel the Office of Diversity at UT is vulnerable right now. Lawmakers could reroute millions and have the office rely only on federal funding, but that’s not a reality.

“I really do see this as the beginning to possibly worse to come and it scares me,” said sophomore Clay McCammon.

Dr. Bruce MacLennan, president of UT’s Faculty Senate, says the amendment came as a surprise.

“We’ve had lots of companies come in and say you need to be doing more on diversity. So we’re trying to do more on diversity. We’ve made progress, but we’re not where we should be,” said Dr. MacLennan.

The bill still has to go before the House and Senate.

“Well I suppose everyone can run on a smaller budget but it would certainly curtail all their activities,” said Dr. MacLennan.

He believes if the office closes it would create a bad reputation and perhaps impact the ability to become a top 25 university. He also worries the legislature could become selective and take away funding.

“I think it’s very concerning if we have people that maybe don’t know much about the field coming in and looking at reading lists, or syllabi for courses or textbooks. It’s just a prescription for really censorship and infringement on academic freedom,” said Dr. MacLennan.

Senator Gresham did not return calls or emails on Thursday. Vice Chancellor Hall with the Office of Diversity was not available for an interview.

Students say they plan on going to the capitol on Tuesday, hoping to speak with legislators.


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