The Princeton Review recently released their annual report on colleges in the United States. The University of Tennessee topped the charts but perhaps not in the way one would expect. UT was ranked the third most LGBTQ+ unfriendly college in the country, and UT was also ranked the college with the second least race class interaction in the nation.
The only universities determined to be more LGBTQ+ unfriendly than UT were College of the Ozarks and Wheaton College, both of which are private, Christian universities. The only school that had less race class interaction than UT was Quinnipiac University, a private institution.
When considered the acts of hate that have occurred on campus in recent years, the rankings may not be a surprise. For example, the Rock was defaced with antisemitic words three times in the past year, several UT students were caught wearing blackface this past February and in 2016 the Pride Center was vandalized.
Why is a public university the center of such prolific acts of hate? Why is a public, state-funded university, which also happens to be the largest college in the state of Tennessee, receiving these rankings denoting an extreme lack of diversity and inclusion? The “Daily Beacon” sat down with students to find out.
Junior student Gwen Frymier is part of the LGBTQ+ community and identifies as transfeminine, as well as lesbian and queer. She has been involved with Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT).
Frymier stated that she not at all surprised by the LGBTQ+ unfriendliness ranking, and she has witnessed the embodiment of the unfriendliness towards her community. Although she can’t recall any specific incidents, she feels that UT students in general possess a hostile attitude towards members of the LGBTQ+ community. She also stated that she didn’t feel that the Bias Education and Response reporting program is adequate enough.
“I have witnessed a fair amount [of hate] for my friends and towards myself. I think it gets swept under the rug here a lot at UT,” Frymier said. The way to report it isn’t very reliable. You don’t really know what’s gonna be done about it.”
In terms of unfriendliness on the part of UT administration, Frymier, who is currently in the early stages of her gender transition, has noticed that many of her teachers don’t seem willing to try to use her correct pronouns. Frymier also stated that the university’s decision to allow white nationalist speakers on campus, such as Rick Tyler who spoke on campus in May, is very disappointing when considering that white nationalist groups have typically been hateful towards the LGBTQ+ community.
Frymier presumes that UT has been the location of unfriendliness and received this ranking due to its close ties with the Haslam family and the UT legislature, the latter of which has been publicly anti-LGBTQ+ In 2012, after UT’s Pride Center released a list of gender neutral pronouns, the Tennessee legislature published a bill banning the promotion of gender neutral pronouns at the University of Tennessee. The same bill also stripped the Pride Center of its funding.
However, Frymier stated that this political association is not an excuse for the level of LGBTQ+ unfriendliness that is exhibited at UT.
“I feel like it’s been a blind spot for UT administration for a really long time,” Frymier said. “I think that cause you can chalk it up to being in the south, but even still, there’s a lot more than 3 universities in the south, so to get third is pretty bad and especially at an ostensibly research-oriented, non-religious school.”
Despite the recent ranking, Frymier feels that there is a possibility for positive change in the future. She explained that Chancellor Plowman’s most recent response to the incident of anti-semitic hate at the Rock, in which Plowman included an itemized list of what would be done to combat the hate, may indicate that the new administration will be more responsive to all acts of hate and discrimination in the future.
Frymier also pointed out that student activists’ involvement has and will continue to make large changes at the university.
“I think that student activism is always gonna be an important thing on college campuses, and I feel like its is through student activism that a lot of positive change is gonna get made, because it is the students activists who are forcing the administration not to sweep things under the rug and point the public eye at things, so I think that student action [the future] is really promising.”
UT may be LGBTQ+ unfriendly, but it still a large public university, and students from all backgrounds and of all identities will continue to enroll at UT for the foreseeable future. The need to promote LGBTQ+ inclusivity is not going away anytime soon, Frymier explained.
As previously noted, UT is also lacking diversity in terms of the interaction between students of different classes and races. Junior student Carmen Stanley discussed her opinion on this ranking.
Stanley has been greatly involved with the Office of Multicultural Student Life in her time at UT; she has served as a multicultural mentor, and she has also worked as a Diversity Educator to go around to classrooms and organizations and educate students about diversity.
Stanley, like Frymier, was not shocked to hear about UT’s nationally recognized lack of diversity. She explained that UT’s demographic indicate how greatly UT lacks diversity.
“UT is not very diverse; it’s not very racially diverse,” Stanley said. “A lot of times students of color walk into classrooms and they might be the only person, or less than 5 students of color may be in that classroom.”
Stanley explained that the university has to work to recruit a diverse group of students in order to diversify the university’s demographics. However, she added that enrolling more diverse students will not necessarily cause students of different classes and backgrounds to interact with each other more.
In order to encourage class and race interaction, UT must do more than simply place students of different backgrounds into the same classroom together, Stanley explained. UT must actively support the organizations and initiatives that aim to promote interaction between diverse students.
Although organization such as the Asian American Association, the Black Cultural Programming Committee and the Latin American Student Association exist to bring diversity to campus, the turn-out at their events is not always very large, Stanley explained. She believes that UT must intentionally work to bring more attention to these organizations and others like them.
“I think that what [UT] can do is support connections who are [promoting diversity],” Stanley said. “We get emails all the time about football games, so why are we not getting emails about ways that students can develop their cultures?”
Like Frymier, Stanley believes that UT should not be excused for its lack of diversity because of the nature of the state government and legislature. Although the modern world and the state of Tennessee in particular both have their fair share of issues related to diversity and oppression that certainly impact UT’s culture, such conditions should not force UT administration into blind compliance with the present circumstances, Stanley explained.
“It’s the charge of the university to do better at strategically planning out how to get the majority students and the people who have cultural differences, how to get them to engage, and supporting organizations on campus, making sure that it is the goal of the university of for every student to leave the university more culturally competent and not putting that charge on the people of color,” Stanley said.
Perhaps next year’s Princeton Review report will reveal if the UT administration has made any strides towards improving the conditions of diversity on campus.