UT gets diversity funding back; legislator waits to see if ‘they’ll clean up their act’

Amid considerable controversy, the Legislature last year diverted $445,882 of University of Tennessee-Knoxville funding from its Office for Diversity and Inclusion and into a minority engineering scholarships fund. But the legislative mandate expires June 30, meaning UT officials could again spend it on promoting racial and cultural diversity on campus.

From a News Sentinel review of the matter:

It’s one of the first major decisions new UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport will have to make on campus and one that state lawmakers, many of whom have voiced opposition to the diversity office in the past, will closely be watching.

The funding level will remain the same, but there are no plans yet for whether the Office for Diversity and Inclusion will be reinstated, said UT Knoxville Vice Chancellor for Communications Ryan Robinson. He said the funds “will be a line item and go right back into where it was before and be a part of the full budget.”

The university is still finalizing its 2017-2018 budget, which is scheduled to be approved by the University of Tennessee board of trustees next month.

“I know that Dr. Davenport plans to invest those funds in student success initiatives and programs that can support an environment where all students feel welcome and safe,” Robinson said in an email. “No decision has been made right now in terms of the administrative framework but discussions are taking place.”

The money for the engineering scholarships has been awarded to 30 students who will receive scholarships of $4,000 each year over the next four years, with the remaining funds being set aside for future scholarships, he said.

…State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said he was disappointed that the university has not chosen to continue to divert future funds to minority engineering scholarships.

“That office had become very political and polarizing, and (it was) giving a horrible reputation to the University of Tennessee and the state,” said Gardenhire, who cited the student-run Sex Week as an example of “meaningless” programming. “I thought this would be a way for the university to quietly just do away with that office and focus on what real diversity is.”

After speaking with university officials and administration, Gardenhire said it was his impression that UT wants to give the office a “chance to clean up their act” this year.

“If they do clean up their act, then I’ll focus my attention on something else,” he said. “But if that office continues to become very radical and polarizing, then I will of course focus my attention back on that to take that money away and apply it to something very useful instead of something very divisive.”

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