Over the past two years, our Tennessee state legislature has passed and our governor, Bill Lee, has signed two pieces of white supremacist “education” legislation. Last year, Tennessee enacted anti-“Critical Race Theory” (CRT) legislation effectively barring the teaching of Black history in K-12 schools. This year the state has promoted similar “divisive concepts” legislation for higher education. This year’s legislation effectively bars our public universities from requiring that their students take classes in Black history or in any other “diversity” requirement.
The largest and most important organization of historians in the United States, the American Historical Association (AHA), has condemned both last year’s and this year’s legislation. In the statement it issued last year, the AHA, joined by over 150 other academic associations, named the “clear goal” of this anti-CRT legislation: “to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.”
“To suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism” in American history is to defend racism, is to defend America’s system of white supremacy. This is inarguable.
In defending white supremacy our law-makers make ever-more precarious the well-being and the lives of Black people and of all people of color. And although we do not generally acknowledge this, white supremacy also makes the lives of tens and tens of millions of white people ever more insecure, ever more filled with confusion, anger and hatred.
Our UT System Administration did nothing to oppose last year’s K-12 law and it has done nothing this year to oppose the “divisive concepts” legislation. Worse still, in an unsigned handout addressing this year’s legislation, UT’s Government Relations Office (GRO) not only fails to condemn this racist legislation, it attempts to reassure us of the law’s benign nature.
First, the GRO insists, the University of Tennessee is not guilty of mandating that university employees or students “attend trainings that include the ‘divisive concepts’ listed in the bill.” Second, the GRO assures us that it has been working successfully with lawmakers to maintain the law’s recognition of “academic freedom and First Amendment rights, particularly freedom of speech.”
Of course, the definition that the UT System gives for academic freedom and freedom of speech here is a narrow definition: This law will not affect what individual professors say in their classrooms, hence, Academic Freedom. But even this is not clear. The first part of Section 4 of the bill says:
A student or employee of a public institution of higher education shall not be penalized, discriminated against, or receive any adverse treatment due to the student's or employee's refusal to support, believe, endorse, embrace, confess, act upon, or otherwise assent to one (1) or more divisive concepts.
In a Senate discussion of the bill on March 21, 2022, Senator Mike Bell, the Senate bill’s principal sponsor, explains that his bill stipulates “that there can’t be any adverse action taken against a student who doesn’t conform or doesn’t believe these divisive concepts ... We can’t tell faculty members that they can’t do this (teach “divisive concepts”). But we need to make sure that whether it’s a faculty member or a student, that no punishment is taken out on them either through denial of tenure or promotion or even a grade ...”
In other words, if a student doesn’t like a grade he gets from me, he can say that he’s gotten the grade because he refused to “conform” to the “divisive concept” I was teaching.
But even before we get to that point we have to recognize that this law has already compromised academic freedom – even before it became a law, even before the bill had been written – our Tennessee elected officials had already acted decisively to quash any attempts at teaching our public university students anything other than the “unapologetic American exceptionalism”and “informed patriotism” our governor has vowed to provide every Tennessee student.
Academic freedom is more than what is said in the classroom. Academic freedom also involves the ability of teachers and administrators at an institution of higher education to control the school’s curriculum. Last year the University of Memphis (UofM), believing that its students needed more diverse perspectives in their education, offered $3000 grants to as many as 20 faculty members in return for those faculty reworking their courses to emphasize greater diversity in perspectives and sources.
Both Governor Bill Lee and Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn denounced this UofM program as “wasting taxpayer dollars” on a “divisive, radical agenda,” or, in Blackburn’s words, “a woke social justice agenda." The University of Memphis folded in the face of this pressure and withdrew its offer to faculty. And our new “divisive concept” law now explicitly bars schools from offering the kind of incentives to faculty that UofM had offered.
UT Knoxville, too, has already run up against our new law, even before it passed. At the beginning of the spring 2021 semester UTK’s Division of Diversity and Engagement (DDE) projected partnering “with the campus Critical Race Collective to create a (Critical Race) center to ‘enhance research and scholarship capacity in this area of study and identify current racist policies and practices on campus.’”
When a right-wing website, “The College Fix,” got hold of these publicly available plans, Senator Blackburn denounced the effort as divisive. UT President Randy Boyd responded, saying, “We will review the ideas compiled in the diversity action plans recently highlighted in the media and work to clarify any areas necessary to ensure we are delivering on our commitment to our students, employees and the state.”
A few weeks later, at the same moment that Governor Lee was announcing the creation of an American Civics Institute on the UTK campus, an institute that Lee promised would combat “anti-American thought,” a UTK spokeswoman was announcing that the DDE plan for a Critical Race Center “is no longer happening.”
At UT Martin (UTM) we’ve also had our first run-in with this law. Although we don’t have a great deal of transparency in this matter, here is the story I have been able to piece together: In spring 2021 a small group of faculty managed to land a proposal for a general education “diversity” requirement in front of the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Instruction (COI). For technical reasons discussion of the proposal in front of the COI, originally slated for the end of spring semester, was delayed until fall 2021.
But over the summer, the UT Government Relations Office reached out to UTM Chancellor Keith Carver, cautioning him that this diversity requirement might run afoul of legislation that had been pre-filed in Nashville – legislation that would ultimately produce this year’s “divisive concepts” law. While the diversity proposal likely would have failed in our Faculty Senate, in the wake of this warning, the proposal was pulled from Faculty Senate consideration.
In short, while the UT Government Relations Office comforts us with reassurances on the new law’s protections for academic freedom and freedom of speech, our UT System evidently has concluded that the best “defense of freedom of speech” is that we say nothing that might question the wisdom of our elected officials, no matter how vile or racist the laws they make, sign or advocate for are.
Our UT System faculties have largely failed to rise to this present educational crisis in which we find ourselves. A handful of UT faculty have spoken out, true ... beyond that, however, we have heard very little. Not one single Faculty Senate within the UT System has spoken up in protest against these white supremacist laws. Neither has the faculty of a single history, sociology, political science, English or philosophy department on any of our UT campuses condemned these laws.
From what I have seen on my own campus, most of our faculty do not seem terribly concerned about the enacting of these white supremacist educational laws. In fact, I get the impression that most faculty would rather not think about it. We are, I am sure, fine examples of responsible citizenship, a real inspiration to our students.
Our UT System leadership, our UT President Randy Boyd, my UTM Chancellor Keith Carver, UTK’s Chancellor Donde Plowman and the other UT chancellors, none of them have raised their voices in opposition to the white supremacist agenda being promulgated in our public education system in Tennessee. Not one of them.
To be clear: This silence evades the moral responsibility we have as citizens to protest against white supremacy and racism. It also evades our highest responsibility as educators to advocate for the educational needs of our students and of our society.
And make no mistake about it, our students, and our society, desperately need to hear and learn the real history of this country – a history of this country that has no better telling than that history as seen through the eyes and experience of Black people.
In the last five years of his life, Martin Luther King repeatedly demonstrated against the kind of behavior we see from our educational leaders today – this willingness to keep their heads down and to say nothing, to shut their eyes to the moral significance of their silence in the face of resurgent white supremacy. History, mourned Dr. King, must “record that the greatest tragedy of this period ... was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
David Barber is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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