KNOXVILLE (WATE) – University of Tennessee students marched on Tuesday, demanding action and saying the university is failing to keep its commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Lawmakers bristled last year at what was coming out of a campus office dedicated to diversity issues. As students lobbied, leaders pushed back one even saying heads need to roll. When they didn’t, the legislature redirected money out of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion.
Now students say the climate is getting worse, pointing to a recent assault and the vandalism the UT Pride Center last month. Students who marched say they’re angry and feel like they’re being silenced.
“Our struggle is not our struggle alone. It’s a struggle that’s faced by many people,” said senior Colleen Ryan.
The group of students wore all black and marched in solidarity on a route accessible for all. They wanted to show UT’s administration it was time to be heard.
“Well right now as a person of color, I do not feel safe on this campus. I go to work and class everyday thinking in the back of my head this might be the last day I’m alive,” said junior George Habeib.
Students are asking for change. Some said they feel marginalized after the vandalism at the Pride Center.
“We would like to see sensitivity training happen so that students recognize the forms of oppression that fellow students face. We would like to see the administration come out against these acts of violence,” added Ryan.
Chancellor Jimmy Cheek marched alongside students and listened as they shared experiences of hatred and discrimination.
Since the Office of Diversity and Inclusion closed, UT says they’re making diversity and inclusion a priority in Vol Vision 2020, the campus’s strategic plan. They’re planning listening sessions with students to get input and feedback on improving the climate.
“We really are a campus that values diversity and inclusivity and we’re trying to be there during this difficult time,” said Ryan.
Some students at the march say they feel like they’ve lost their advocates.
“We’re as students doing everything we can and more than we can, and should honestly, to make this a safer space,” said Habeib.
They say walking along side each other on Tuesday was powerful.
“It’s absolutely beautiful honestly to see that the campus is willing to get together and not be divided,” added Habeib.
UT adds they’re doing their best to listen and work together as a campus, making the university a more welcoming and inclusive place.
The university has reallocated approximately $436,000 – the money which previously funded the Office of Diversity and Inclusion – to a new minority engineering scholarship program for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Through the new Diversity Engineering Scholarship Program, UT will award scholarship funds to a single cohort of students beginning with the 2017-18 academic year in order to maximize the effectiveness of the funds for student recruitment purposes. The awards will be allocated as $3,000 to $6,000 annual scholarships for four years.
UT appointed in June Norma Anderson as Special Advisor of Diversity and Inclusion. Her role began on July 1. Anderson’s duties include creating programs and policies, overseeing productivity and initiatives, helping the university’s reputation in regards to employment, and evaluating the school’s climate.