UT President Randy Boyd withdrew his support from a fundraiser for conservative Tennessee state Senator Mark Pody on Sunday night after facing backlash from students and faculty.
Sen. Pody is a far-right politician who publicly advocates against LGBTQ rights and supported the “Stop the Steal” movement that culminated in the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Boyd originally agreed to foot the bill for a breakfast fundraiser scheduled for Monday morning in support of Sen. Pody. In a statement, he said he did not plan to make any contributions to the campaign and did not consider himself a “host” for the event.
“Senator Pody has acknowledged that he mistakenly listed me as ‘hosting’ the event on an invitation,” Boyd wrote in a statement. “I have not solicited nor did I intend to solicit any contributions for him. I have not made a contribution to him either personally or through a PAC. I did not attend the event and have decided not to pay for the breakfast.”
When word got out that Boyd was planning on sponsoring the event, four UT faculty members composed a letter speaking out against his plans, contributing to his decision last night to withdraw his support of the event.
History professor Monica Black, associate professor of psychology Patrick Grzanka, head of the Religious Studies department Tina Shepardson and English lecturer and President of United Campus Workers Anne Langendorfer wrote that Boyd’s actions would be harmful to UT campus and to the LGBTQ community.
“As the president of The University of Tennessee, your actions and your words under any circumstances — including in your private life as a citizen — have a strong impact on all of us associated with the university,” they wrote to Boyd. “Though you have publicly acknowledged that you do not agree with everything Senator Pody advocates, you also know that raising funds for him means that you are endorsing his candidacy, period.”
After that letter, Boyd released his statement in which he apologized for his original plans and explained his reasoning for planning to attend and pay for the event. He met with the UT Faculty Senate on Monday morning to debrief from the events of the weekend.
“Senator Pody is a long-time friend,” Boyd said. “We do not agree on numerous issues. For instance, I strongly support diversity and inclusion, including honoring and upholding LBGTQ rights and all University policies in that regard, and I think my record at UT these last three years speaks for itself.”
The whirlwind of events has sparked opinions across campus as student leaders and activists for LGBTQ rights expressed how the president’s original intentions inherently supported the politician.
Monday afternoon, Student Body President Claire Donelan released a statement on behalf of SGA, in which she denounced Boyd’s actions and said his initial actions speak for themselves.
“Senator Pody's reprehensible personal and legislative history should have alone been enough to keep President Boyd from offering to fund this event,” Donelan said. “His backpedaling, while recognized, appears disingenuous.”
Co-chairs of UT’s Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee organization, Amanda Knopps and Gregory Whited support Donelan’s claim, calling Boyd out for what they see as performative support for LGBTQ students.
“Boyd’s actions make it pretty clear that all of the ‘efforts’ to be more LGBTQ+ friendly are performative and lacking in any sort of substance or consequences,” Knopps and Whited said.
Avery Vantrease, a senior supply chain management major, who also serves as executive secretary for SGA, was upset by Boyd’s actions and believes that even after pulling out of the fundraiser, he has shown a lack of support for LGBTQ students.
“It is a privilege to think that one can be ‘friends’ with a politician who is actively causing immense harm to the LGBTQ+ community,” Vantrease said. “Students cannot truly feel supported when the highest of university leadership publicly supports people like (Pody).”
Evan Mays, a junior majoring in social work, who serves as the director of SGA’s First-Year Leadership Council, says that Boyd’s decision to withdraw funding from the event should have been easier to make than it seems it was.
“I am relieved that President Boyd backtracked and pulled the funding he offered Senator Pody, but it shouldn’t take letters from faculty for him to do that,” Mays said. “Our university needs to make clear that Vol Means All and that every student on our campus, regardless of how they identify, is respected by every level of our administration.”
“I’ve learned a great deal from this unfortunate situation, and I apologize for the concern and confusion it has caused,” Boyd said. “It will not happen again.”
Donelan ended her statement with a list of ways in which Boyd can work to improve UT’s attitude toward LGBTQ students, which include “donating the money that was intended to finance the breakfast to the UT Pride Center,” “hosting a Town Hall Meeting to hear the concerns of the Student Body” and “supporting student calls for change in regards to LGBTQ+ issues.”
A picture of the statement was posted to UT SGA’s instagram with the caption, “Student Government Association vows to make sure that ALL students are supported on our campus. @ut_president, we look forward to your response.”