RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in public affairs. You can write for us!
By Courtney Anderson
Students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have had a whirlwind of a academic year.
In between talks of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s outsourcing plans and the sexual assault lawsuit that was filed against the university, the school has also been dealing with Tennessee legislators and their feelings about the diversity programs.
It is a conflict that lasted throughout the entire 2015-2016 academic year and finally came to a head this May.
The conflict began on August 26, 2015 when the Office of Diversity and Inclusion posted an article written by the director of the Pride Center, Donna Braquet, on its website.
In the article, Braquet talked about gender identity and gender-neutral pronouns students, faculty and staff could incorporate into their everyday language. And while the post was innocent enough, many conservatives did not find it helpful.
On August 28, 2015, Fox News commentator Todd Starnes posted a piece about the article on his opinion blog. Starnes discouraged the use of gender-neutral pronouns and made fun of the University for having the post on one of its websites.
“Anything goes for the sake of inclusivity, right?” Starnes wrote.
The post then got the attention of Tennessee lawmakers who, like Starnes, felt that the post was unnecessary and posed a threat to “traditional” values.
Like this? You can write for us too!
The Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion, Rickey Hall, was heavily criticized, as was Braquet and the Pride Center.
Soon after, the post was removed from the website while Hall was on vacation.
Fast forward to December 2015.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion posted a notice on its website reminding faculty and staff to keep holiday parties non-religious.
Specifically, they were asked to make sure “your holiday parties aren’t just Christmas parties in disguise.”
They were discouraged from incorporating religious symbols and encouraged to bear in mind that Christmas is not the only holiday to occur in the month of December.
Tennessee lawmakers did not like this advice at all.
Many of them, such as Rep. Jimmy Duncan and Rep. Martin Daniel, called them an attack on Christmas and Christianity. Duncan was one of the lawmakers to demand that Hall be fired and Cheek resign.
“Chancellor Cheek called me today and he was very apologetic over this matter. He told me that he is planning to take action within the next week,” Duncan wrote in a Facebook post. “I think the one who should be fired is the one responsible for this, Rickey Hall, the Vice Chancellor brought in here from Minnesota to run this office.”
Students at UT Knoxville fought back.
They rallied in support of Hall and demanded that Tennessee lawmakers recognize that diversity is a major aspect of successful colleges and universities.
Thus, the hashtag #UTDiversityMatters was born.
On December 8, 2015: a disastrous press conference was held.
Students held a sit-in in Cheek’s office to show their support for Hall.
Cheek and Hall were to meet students in Cheek’s office at 3:30 p.m. to address them and the press. Instead, they gave an exclusive interview to only a couple local Knoxville news stations on the third floor of Andy Holt Tower, the building where both of their offices are located. Students discovered this and rushed to meet their administrators.
Afterwards, Cheek and Hall walked to the Communications building, room 321, to finally address the rest of the press and the students who had been waiting. I
n the meantime, it was revealed by the Knoxville News Sentinel that Hall had been “counseled” and that he would no longer have control of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion website. Control of the site was given to the Vice Chancellor for Communications, Margie Nichols.
Winter break came and news died down.
On January 20, 2016, a few weeks after the start of the spring semester, a bill that would strip the Office of Diversity and Inclusion of state funding was introduced. Students immediately began taking action.
The UT Diversity Matters Coalition was officially formed and began having meetings with administration, including Cheek and Hall, about the future of the diversity programs at the school. Meanwhile, in early February, Nichols announced that she was retiring.
Things took a sour turn for diversity at UT Knoxville on March 2, when the senate voted to strip state funding.
Three days later, nearly 150 students wore black and staged a walkout of a basketball game. Throughout the month of March, the coalition continued to meet with administration.
And in April, the Tennessee House also voted to strip state funding.
On April 19, the coalition and nearly 500 students staged a mass class exit in protest of the funding cuts. During the protest, students staged a die-in on the Pedestrian Walkway, one of the busiest pathways on campus.
The following day, the coalition had their final meeting with administration. And while some of the demands were met or otherwise discussed, many of the demands were met with “No’s” from the administration.
A month later, on May 19, the University of Washington announced that Hall accepted a position as its new vice president of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity and chief diversity officer. Hall will start his position on August 1, 2016.
The following day, on May 20, Governor Bill Haslam allowed the bill to become law without his signature. The Pride Center was immediately shut down, Braquet was fired and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion was disbanded.
Thomas Tran, UT student and a member of the coalition, was one of the students to speak at the rally. Since the end of the semester, he has consistently spoken out against Tennessee lawmakers’ actions and administrations’ lack of action.
“We have been doing everything ‘the right way,’” Tran said in an interview with RISE NEWS. “We’ve voted. We’ve called legislators. We’ve had meetings with admin. We’ve built broad base support with the student body. And this is how admin pays us back.”
The Pride Center, which administration announced will be converted into “student organization” is being run by students known as “Pride Ambassadors.” Without administrative support or funding, they are on their own.
“We have been told that we have to fend for ourselves,” a post on the Pride Center Facebook page reads. “We, who have been targeted, and harassed, and scapegoated for an entire year, have been cast aside. We have been offered up as sacrifice.”
Students have not given up.
Members of the UT Diversity Matters Coalition have promised to continue fighting for diversity at UT Knoxville. Johnathan DeWitt Clayton, a UT student and member of the coalition, said it best in a Facebook status.
“This isn’t any one issue, but rather an issue of systematic oppression and erasure, one that the university as a whole is refusing to acknowledge, let alone combat,” Clayton wrote. “But we’re here. We’re not leaving. And we won’t let you silence us anymore.”
Cover Photo Credit: Courtney Anderson