UT College Dems

Members of College Dems pictured with Tennessee state house representative Gloria Johnson at her home.

On April 8, Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a bill meant to protect students and employees of public institutions of higher education from being penalized for “refusal to support, believe, endorse, embrace, confess, act upon or otherwise assent to one or more divisive concepts,” according to the language of the bill.

The legislation lays out a list of 16 “divisive concepts,” which include race or sex-based privilege, scapegoating or stereotyping, as well as the notion that Tennessee or the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. State legislators say the law is meant to correct a trend towards race and sex-based division and discrimination in higher education.

Many of the concepts mirror those included in legislation from last summer prohibiting public K-12 schools from including or promoting certain concepts surrounding race and sex in the classroom.

While the new law does not place a restriction on what can be taught in college classrooms, a restriction widely viewed as unconstitutional, it falls into place alongside a spate of bills targeting critical race theory in education.

One divisive concept enumerated in the bill which appears to imitate the language of certain critical race theorists states that “the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”

The new law provides a path for students and employees of UT to take legal action against the university or against instructors if they feel they have been penalized, received adverse treatment, been denied promotion or graduation or have been turned down for a job for not endorsing divisive concepts.

Much of the criticism of the bill has centered on the fragility of a set-up where students can pursue legal action against an instructor or report an instructor based on their feelings in a classroom setting.

During a time of questioning on the House floor, Rep. Gloria Johnson, Democrat representing the 13th District in Knox County, was joined by other representatives in questioning the effects of the legislation over free speech and freedom of instruction in the classroom. Johnson, an alumna of UT, expressed concern that the law could easily be abused by students who hold a grievance against an instructor.

“I remember in my philosophy class in college, feeling incredibly uncomfortable and even some anguish at some of the topics we were discussing related to women, related to race. But we were doing it in order to understand the different types of philosophies and it ended up being one of my favorite courses,” Johnson said. “I just think legislating feelings is a scary place to go.”

The law prohibits mandatory diversity trainings for students or employees that promote any of the divisive concepts included in the legislation. It also seeks to broaden the conception of diversity in higher education by requiring that all employees whose primary duties include promoting diversity work towards strengthening intellectual diversity.

Many faculty members spoke out with concerns that the new law was designed to weaken instruction on issues of race and sex and that it could harm especially non-tenure-track faculty whose jobs are more vulnerable to review.

To address these concerns, the Office of the Provost set up an online resource page that reaffirms the university’s commitment to academic freedom and details UT’s response to the law.

Chancellor Donde Plowman and Provost John Zomchick wrote a joint statement for the page that stops short of openly criticizing the legislation, yet acknowledged that many faculty worry about a “chilling effect” on their academic freedom.

Echoing critics of the bill, the statement suggested that the indoctrination the legislation targets is not a problem at UT.

“As a university that values free speech, challenging debate and the free expression of ideas, we do not indoctrinate. We discuss. We research. We listen. We educate,” the statement said.

“We want you to hear from us that your work is important and that we are here to support you. Teaching about challenging topics, including race and racism, is important to our university and to our society. The language of the new law specifically outlines protections for academic freedom and free speech — two things we will always vigorously work to protect.”

The resource page states that UT will begin conducting surveys to comply with a requirement in the law that public universities survey students’ and employees’ “comfort level in speaking freely on campus, regardless of political affiliation or ideology.”

While the page says that UT does not have many mandatory trainings, the university is assessing any such training to see if it includes any of the divisive concepts described in the bill.

Grace Nystrom, a sophomore studying cultural anthropology and political science and president of UTK College Democrats, said the new law could dampen free speech on divisive concepts on campus.

“As a student in higher education it is disheartening to see this law that apparently disrupts diverse beliefs and perspectives. Higher education is a place for learning complex issues and part of that is discussing ‘divisive concepts,’” Nystrom said.

Much of the faculty and administrative response to the bill has criticized it as a solution to a problem that does not exist. Caesar Schanzenbach, junior studying political science and chairman of the UTK Conservative Coalition, said that UT President Randy Boyd suggested the law will have a small practical impact at UT when Boyd visited one of his classes.

"I personally believe that the new law is a non-issue both with respect to its exigence and content,” Schanzenbach said. “It should not be the case that any educational institution — primary, secondary or higher — should actively promote or require conceptual learning that seeks to put people down based on aspects of their very being, especially those which receive taxpayer funds, like our university.”

Though Schanzenbach said that critical race theory is not as present in higher education as this form of legislation suggests, he believes the law is “an insurance policy for civics-based public education.”

The new law exists within a broader context of educational reforms in the state government. In an effort to combat what he termed “anti-American thought” at colleges and universities, Gov. Bill Lee announced in January the creation of a $6 million “Institute of American Civics” at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy on campus which will promote a civics education based on American exceptionalism and liberty.

While critics of the new law believe it is an academically dangerous reaction to a non-existent problem, its field of supporters say the reaction has been unnecessarily strong for a bill they believe is unlikely to have a strong effect on campus.

“I urge people who question the reach of the act to actually read its text,” Schanzenbach said. “Conservatives at UTK stand fully behind the banner of academic diversity and stand wholly against the racism and civic discord that the law helps to keep out of Tennessee classrooms.”

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