House Committee Advances Diversity Proposal

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HB 2248, sponsored by Rep. Micah VanHuss (R-Jonesborough) and targeting the University of Tennessee- Knoxville’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, was passed out of the House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday.  As amended, the bill would prohibit the University of Tennessee from using state funds to promote the use of gender neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays, or to fund or support the student-led event known as ‘Sex Week’.  In addition, the bill would divert roughly $100,000 from the UTK Office of Diversity and Inclusion to the University’s Graphic Design program and printing and mail services for the sole purpose of creating and distributing decals of the national motto, “In God We Trust,” on local and state law enforcement vehicles.

Rep. VanHuss’ amendment to the bill would further restrict the university by requiring all funds budgeted to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the 2016-2017 fiscal year that are not sent to the decal program be allocated solely to student recruitment. In his explanation of the amendment, VanHuss explained that of the over $400,000 that is part of the Office’s allotted budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, about $100,000 would go to the decal program, and the remaining funds would go to student recruitment programs. The amendment does not appear to impact funding for other diversity-related offices at UTK, such as the Office of Equity and Diversity and the Office of Multicultural Student Life, but would prohibit any function of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion not directly related to recruitment for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. This would negatively impact one of the office’s primary goals, which is retaining students once they have started their collegiate careers at UTK.

The bill garnered controversy among some of the committee members, most notably Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis) and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley). Rep. Fitzhugh, while agreeing with Rep. Turner that the bill was likely to create an insensitive atmosphere towards minorities at the University of Tennessee, also focused on the unnecessary intervention of government into the internal matters at the university.

“We may have the right and power to do this, but sometimes power is best wielded when it’s not wielded,” said Rep. Fitzhugh.

The companion bill, SB 1912, is slated for consideration by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. The next step for the House bill will be consideration by the Civil Justice Committee. A date has not yet been set for such a hearing.

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