What would have usually been a normal spring afternoon on Tennessee's campus quickly became the opposite Tuesday afternoon when nearly 300 students and faculty members protested recent legislative action against the university's Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
The Mass Class Exit, organized by the UT Diversity Matters coalition, took their protest from the seats of the Humanities Amphitheater to Pedestrian Walkway. Senior and member of the Diversity Matters coalition JT Taylor invited those members of the crowd who had ever felt “personally victimized” by the university to lie side by side on the walkway's surface.
“Everyone be mindful that we are not in the business of hurting students who are not engaged with us right now,” Taylor said to the crowd. “We are simply trying to let them know that we are hurting, and the administration has not been showing us respect.”
From Pedestrian Walkway the protesters made their way to Presidential Courtyard, where they were greeted to several Confederate Flags and signs hanging from the dormitory windows, one of which read “Where's my scholarship for being white?”
“It's not surprising, this is the culture of UT,” Kristen Godfrey, member of the UT Diversity Matters Coalition, said. “People are very uncomfortable with us trying to be free and get our rights and stand for equality.”
Addressing the protesters at the outset, senior and member of VolOUT Thomas Tran called on his fellow students to help enact change in what he said was a hostile environment to many.
“Homophobia, queerphobia, racism still exist on this campus,” Tran said, referencing a broken window of the Pride Center many students believed was a hate crime. UTPD police officials said in January that the incident was likely not a hate crime, though Tran and others remain unconvinced.
“The problem is on this campus, we have to change UT campus,” Tran said.
The protests came as members of a state senate committee passed a bill seeking to redirect funds from the diversity office to go towards scholarships for minority students seeking degrees in engineering. The bill passed 9-2 in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
The bill will now likely head to the Senate Floor, though it's current language differs from the House version, which seeks to redirect $100,000 of the sum total $436,700 in funds that would otherwise go the to diversity office to fund a program to create “In God We Trust” decals for state law enforcement vehicles. Both chambers would have to agree on one version of the bill in order for it to become law.
Speaking on behalf of the student body, student body president elect Carson Hollingsworth said that while he was proud to have been a part of the demonstration, he finds it upsetting that such an event was necessary in the first place.
“Now, more than ever, we need to come together as a UT community,” Hollingsworth said, “and ensure our State Representatives understand that their actions in taking away such an integral part of our University will only harm us; not only as students, but also as graduates of this institution."