GOP senators vote $450K in annual spending to bring conservative views to UT

A year after the legislature de-funded the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, a state Senate committee has voted Wednesday to create an “intellectual diversity” office instead, reports The Tennessean.

Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, recommended the office while the Senate Education Committee was reviewing the UT budget as proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam. Hensley proposed an amendment that would set aside $450,000 from the budget to fund the office on the Knoxville campus, a move some senators suggested would encourage more people with conservative views to speak their minds.

UT President Joe DiPietro, who had been fielding questions from the committee for more than an hour, seemed blindsided. But he urged the lawmakers to give university leaders a chance to consider other options.

“I have not seen your amendment. You’ve caught me flat-footed,” DiPietro told the lawmakers. “It’s not a good thing for you or for us to be in these circumstances with these kinds of amendments.”

The education committee unanimously approved Hensley’s change, sending the budget on for consideration in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee. It was the latest provocative action from a panel that has repeatedly put UT administrators on the defensive by taking aim at day-to-day campus operations.

… According to Hensley’s amendment, $450,000 in recurring funds would be “earmarked” for the “intellectual diversity” office. That money would be used for staff and programming, “including holding a minimum of four events on campus, per academic year, that allow for the discussion and debate of societal and philosophical issues by presenters with differing views.”

Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, the chairwoman of the committee… said her office had fielded several complaints from UT students who felt pressured not to voice conservative views in class.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, praised the amendment, saying it would allow for professors and students with conservative views to speak more freely. Kelsey said that, in the current campus climate, “traditional American values (are) a black mark against you.”

In an interview after the meeting, DiPietro said he and his leadership team would need time to review the amendment to “figure out how we are able to or not able to comply.” He said that, while he took the lawmakers seriously, he didn’t think the amendment was the right way to accomplish their goals.

“I would prefer that they didn’t do that,” he said. “The people that should be making the decisions about programming should be the people that are closest to it.”

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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