A 269-page report could decide the fate of UT's historically controversial Sex Week.
Following a request by legislative leadership in April 2018 to review Sex Week funding, the Tennessee Comptroller's Office began to research and review the event. Its findings were presented by Comptroller of the Treasury Justin P. Wilson and Lauren Spires, legislative research analyst for the comptroller of the Treasury, at Wednesday's Senate Education Committee meeting in Nashville.
The report, which suggests 14 policy suggestions for UT to help distance itself from the annual event, has demanded the attention of nearly every UT affiliate as allegiances and stances are taken.
Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee's Sex Week 2019, scheduled for Sunday, March 31 through Friday, April 5, will not be affected by the policy suggestions, but the fate of its future events rests in the hands of UT administrators, the Board of Trustees and legislators as they decide which policy considerations will be most beneficial.
Fourteen policy considerations are outlined in the 269-page document presented by Wilson on Wednesday. The considerations range from “minor changes to campus policy” to “an outright ban of the event.” The following are the policy considerations:
- The Tennessee General Assembly could pass a law stating that Sex Week shall not occur at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
- The Tennessee General Assembly could direct the University of Tennessee Knoxville to declare itself the sole provider of sex-related programming on campus.
- The Tennessee General Assembly may wish to require that University of Tennessee Knoxville provides more detailed and transparent information to students, legislators and Tennesseans about funding for registered student organizations, including the amounts requested and allocated and the reasons that some requests are denied or reduced.
- The Tennessee General Assembly may wish to require that the University of Tennessee reviews the Comptroller's report, carefully consider all policy options, state its current position given the university's new leadership and report any actions taken or future actions planned to the legislature by a specific date.
- The Tennessee General Assembly may choose to ignore Sex Week at the University of Tennessee Knoxville as it has in some years and as it has with similar events at other Tennessee universities.
- The University of Tennessee Knoxville should adopt a more consistent and proactive communication strategy for students, parents and Tennessee citizens regarding controversial events.
- The University of Tennessee Knoxville should take additional actions to reduce the perception of bias in the student activity fee funding allocation process.
- The University of Tennessee Knoxville could stop allocating funds directly to registered student organizations.
- The University of Tennessee Knoxville could limit the amount of funding registered student organizations can request annually.
- UTK could charge registered student organizations for the use of all facilities.
- The SPAC could be required to consider the benefit of the student body and the entire university when making funding decisions.
- The SPAC could be formally prohibited from allocating funds for income-producing events.
- The SPAC could be formally required to consider event attendance when making funding decisions.
- SEAT should reflect on how student organizations at other universities have offered week-long, sex-related programs.
At Wednesday's meeting, Interim UT President Randy Boyd announced the university would adopt policy considerations #3, #6, #7 and #8, while researching policy consideration #10.
Timeline leading into Wednesday's Senate Education Committee meeting
Legislation, university policy changes and legislative hearings have surrounded Sex Week since its inception in 2013. The following is a brief timeline of events surrounding Sex Week:
2012: SEAT becomes a registered student organization.
August 2012: Former UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek becomes aware of SEAT's Sex Week. It is determined by the Chancellor and his cabinet said that students “had the absolute right to organize the event.”
March 20, 2013: Cheek announced SEAT would not receive funding from university departments or academic programs for Sex Week after reviewing a Sex Week program agenda released in January. SEAT had been allocated $18,000 in total — $11,145 from UT academic programs and $6,700 in student activity fees.
In a press release, Cheek said, “We support the process and the students involved, but we should not use state funds in this manner.”
SEAT started a crowdsource fund to raise the necessary funding to continue the event, saying “UT Administration refused to stand up for sexual education for students, and Sex Week's budget was cut due to political intimidation. Help us fund it anyway.”
March 25, 2013: The UT Board of Trustees received the Report of Findings on “Sex Week.” Cheek prepared the report in response to questions raised by former UT President Joe DiPietro. It was found that SEAT did not violate any rules by organizing Sex Week, but DiPietro condemned the university's proactive measures for the event: “UT Knoxville administrators could have done a better job of proactively questioning, understanding and preparing for a campus-wide student organization event billed as 'Sex Week.'”
April 2013: Public Chapter 429 requiring the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to compile annual reports of student activity fee collection and use at each public university, community college and technical college in the state was passed. Along compiled annually since 2014, the Comptroller's report says it is not detailed and that the office found misreported information by at least one unnamed university.
May 16, 2013: The Senate Higher Education Oversight Subcommittee discussed Sex Week and policies at UT. Much of the discussion centered on how student organizations requested and promoted events and the ideologies of speakers invited to campus. According to the report, university administrators stood strong in “the position that while they may not agree with Sex Week on a personal level, the university has an obligation to uphold free speech provisions of the First Amendment.”
February 2014: House Joint Resolution 661 formally condemned the organizers of Sex Week. The resolution said “the funding of 'Sex Week' at UT-Knoxville is an outrageous misuse of student fees and grant monies” and that “'Sex Week fits nowhere within the mission of the University of Tennessee, nor ever.”
February 12, 2014: DiPietro said in a press release that the Board of Trustees, not the legislature, should make changes to student fees. “Going forward, I hope those responsible for planning speakers and events are sensitive as well as mindful of the diverse opinions of others as to what is or may not be offensive regarding presentations on our campuses,” DiPietro said. “I have confidence that our campus leadership and our students, faculty and staff will take this to heart and suggest to our elected officials that this is the role of our Board of Trustees to address and monitor these issues with us on behalf of the University.”
Cheek asks SEAT to “tone it down.” SEAT leases an I-40 billboard to advertise Sex Week.
March 2014: Senate adopted Senate Joint Resolution 626 to direct UT administrators and the Board of Trustees to “implement changes to the assessment and allocation of student activity fees within” the UT system. On June 18 of the same year, the Board of Trustees adopted Board Policy BT0011 in response to SJR 626. This created the opt-in and opt-out system. One trustee is recorded commenting that UT was “dealt a bad hand” and rejected the policy by adding that “when funding is conditioned on a behavior, it is the beginning of censorship.”
Students who choose to opt in (option 1) allow the university to use the fee for student programming on campus, and, in turn, those students receive free access or discounted admission to all student programming such as Vol Night Long and guest speakers. Students who choose to opt out (option 2) tell the university to use the fee for initiatives and events that are not student-led.
April 2016: The Tennessee General Assembly passed Public Chapter 1066 which explicitly states that “state funds shall not be expended by the University of Tennessee to promote the use of gender neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays or to fund or support sex week.” This legislation is responsible for the defunding of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, whose funding was reallocated to a minority engineering scholarship program.
May 2017: Public Chapter 336 was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly to enact the Campus Free Speech Protection Act. The legislation “provides explicit free speech protections to individuals at Tennessee's public colleges and universities, regardless of belief or ideology.”
April 2018: DiPietro responded to a state legislator in an email saying, “The bottom line is (1) while I believe sex education for students is needed, I am sorely disappointed in the judgement of the students and faculty, who came up with these titles/talks, (2) we have implemented all the things the General Assembly has requested in dealing with sex week over the years-opt-in payment, reports of what student activity fees are spent on to students and their families, etc. and (3) dealing with the issue is complicated by First Amendment rights. The only other thing that could be done is that the legislature enacts a law that says we cannot have it? In turn it will be ruled unconstitutional and likely lead to a law suit that we will lose.”
April 17, 2018: Senator Richard Briggs asks for opinion from Attorney General Herbert Slatery with questions about PC 1066. Solicitor General Andrée Blumstein responds a week later, stating that the Attorney General could not complete the opinion request because the “legal advice would be more effective if it were provided directly to UTK.”
September 2018: The Comptroller's Office interviewed five top UT officials. Each was asked it the university was “tone deaf” to legislator concerns about Sex Week in regards to the university's response. All five rejected the idea that the university had been tone deaf to the situation.
February 20, 2019: The Senate Education Committee meets in Nashville. Wilson and Spires share the report.
Following the money
Motivations behind the investigation of Sex Week funding stem from a concern that state resources, direct and indirect, were used in the production of the event. If so, it is likely the university is in violation of Public Chapter 1066. The university said the law is “vaguely worded” and therefore hard to take action upon without a resulting lawsuit.
According to the report, funding for Sex Week is pulled from four different sources: student activity fees, private donations, indirect benefits and gift funds. As a registered student organization, SEAT can apply for Student Programming and Service Fee funds from the Student Programming Allocation Committee; reserve most campus facilities at no cost; obtain an organization webpage on Vol Link; use the university's name following the organization name; request an official student organization logo from the Office of Communications and Marketing and request a student organization email account.
Each semester, students pay a $506 Student Programs and Services Fee. A portion of each fee is sent to recreational sports, International House, athletics, student organization travel, student life departmental support, Student Health Center, Student Counseling Center, Center for Health Education and Wellness, miscellaneous program/service support, debt services and reserves and student organized programming. The student organized programming portion is opted-in or opted-out as to whether students would like the $15.46 portion of SPSF to support SPAC funding.
Opt-in fees benefit three groups of organizations: the Black Cultural Programming Committee, Campus Events Board and Registered Student Organizations. BCPC receives a set $137,000 annually; CEB receives $570,000 annually and RSOs receive an average of $166,000, depending on the number of students opted-in.
According to the report, SEAT has requested and received the highest allocation of student activity fee funding in four of the last five years. SEAT was allocated $28,390 during the 2017-18 school year, which sat them atop the list of allocations. UT's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People received $25,000; Boss Dance Company received $18,800; the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students was allocated $18,250 and the Psychology Graduate Student Association received $17,000.
SEAT's allocation has been framed by potential bias, which is outlined by Policy Consideration #7.
Representative Micah Van Huss sent a letter with signatures from 32 other legislators, on April 24, 2018 to former UT President Joe DiPietro saying that “in spite of (PC 1066), the University of Tennessee allowed SEAT to use campus facilities for 'Sex Week' again this year. This is a clear violation of this law, as well as its intent.”
RSOs are allowed use of most campus facilities at no cost. Rental fees are required for certain spaces such as McClung Museum and the Howard Baker Center. Fees for other spaces may be enforced if an event takes place outside regular operating hours. SEAT hosted events in the Baker Center during 2017 at no charge because, according to an administrator, Haslam Scholars students have access to the center with waived fees, and several members of SEAT are Haslam Scholars.
Calculations made during the Comptroller's research suggest that based on the number of Sex Week events in 2017 and 2018, the size of the rooms used and rental rates, SEAT would be charged $4,336 in 2017 and $4,752 in 2018 for the use of campus facilities if not an RSO.
After learning its use of indirect funding, the Comptroller suggested two policies — Policy Consideration #1 (The Tennessee General Assembly could pass a law stating that Sex Week shall not occur at the University of Tennessee Knoxville) and Policy Consideration #10 (UTK could charge registered student organizations for the use of all facilities).
Students, administration draw lines for Sex Week battle
At Wednesday's meeting, Boyd reiterated the university's stance on Sex Week.
“We want to be clear that the University of Tennessee does not condone or support the sensational and explicit programming that Sex Week has often provided,” Boyd said. “We believe that it has damaged the reputation and overshadowed the many achievements of our university.”
Boyd, however, felt confident in the ability of all parties to find a “win-win” outcome to the situation.
“I'm hopeful that we can find a win-win where they have opportunity to lead and express themselves but in a way that provides valuable and needed help on very critical issues.”
Boyd added that UT officials are in no way attempting to limit free speech.
“We believe in the right of free speech just as you do, and we'll support that right of our students,” Boyd said. “Thus, while we can encourage and redirect toward more desperately needed educational content, the students still can continue on their own to provide programming of their choosing.”
Soon after the conclusion of the Senate Education Committee meeting, Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis shared Boyd's sentiment in an email to UT students, faculty and staff.
“Programming for students and the ability of our students to create and participate in registered student organizations is critical for our campus and something we feel strongly about offering,” Davis said. “The report gave us a number of things to consider, and we chose options for moving forward that preserve programming for students.”
Students soon took to social media to express their concerns. Many students have changed their names on Twitter to include Sex Week in some way with some variations including “Phoebe Stands with Sex Week @UTK” and “noé likes to f*ck(ing support sex week !!).” Along with changed names, many of shared their thoughts with “#WeNeedSexWeek.”
On Thursday, SEAT released a statement regarding the report, stating that their “treatment as a group and as individuals dispels any notion of a Tennessee or Volunteer family.”
“Our own campus administrators have allowed members of SEAT, who are all UTK students — a majority of whom have been born and raised in Tennessee — to be repeatedly slandered by elected officials,” SEAT co-chairs Megan Henley and Cole Tipton said in a Tweet. “We are students. We are people. We work hard to produce a full week of educational programming on important issue — issues that are relevant to college-aged-adults for our peers. We are deserving of respect.”
The Student Government Association echoed their support of the student body in a statement on Friday, which was released after SGA leadership met with Davis, Vice Chancellor for Student Life Vince Carilli, Dean of Student Shea Kidd Houze and Vice Chancellor for Communications Tisha Benton to discuss UT's response and discuss the effects on student programming.
“We expressed student concerns and frustration over the perceived loss of student-led programming, targeted attacks on SEAT programming and confusion over the next steps for our campus,” the release said.
SGA Statement Regarding the Comptroller’s Report pic.twitter.com/h7n9vG1Ve0— UTK SGA (@UTKSGA) February 23, 2019
Takeaways from their meeting included confirmation that the university has decided to terminate SPAC and replace it with a different system “to ensure that student-led programming can still occur on campus, with greater administrative oversight.” Student programming for spring 2019 would not be changed; a replacement for SPAC has not been created, and the format has not been determined; effects will be on the funding process solely; student-led programming and events are protected under the First Amendment, but university funding is never guaranteed, and a formal proposal for SPAC's replacement must be presented and approved at the Board of Trustees meeting on June 21, 2019.
“SGA’s stance is and always will be to support students. We disagree with some of the verbiage used in our university’s response to this report,” the statement said. “We do not believe any student-led program is an embarrassment to our university. We believe that sex education provided by SEAT is a vital resource.”
The statement also acknowledge the flaws of SPAC and its need to be reevaluated, but SGA leadership stands firm that students should lead the allocation process.
“We hold the belief that student programming was created to empower and positively impact students,” SGA leaders said in the statement. “Therefore, students should be the primary decision-makers when determining what programs occur on campus.”
Conversations will continue “to ensure students’ voices are heard during this process” with an Open Town Hall on Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Student Union. On Wednesday, SGA leaders will head to Nashville to lobby and a form will open for people to express their concerns. SGA leaders will also travel to the Board of Trustees meeting on March 1, and a separate form will open by that date for suggestions on a replacement for SPAC.
“We will continue to support and stand alongside our student organizations like SEAT as we believe that educating our student body on their sexual health and creating a campus environment which fosters diverse ideas, and programming is paramount to the success of the university.”
SEAT's 2019 Sex Week is set to discuss topics such as healthy relationships, drag culture, international litigation of sodomy laws and black feminist theory.
“Sex Week continues to bring comprehensive sex education to UTK, Knoxville and the State of Tennessee,” SEAT's co-chairs said. “Let’s talk about it.”