Conservative report affects higher education anti-diversity bill

By: - February 17, 2022 6:01 am
Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, and Gov. Bill Lee.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, and Gov. Bill Lee.(Photo: John Partipilo)

A conservative report critiquing Tennessee universities’ emphasis on “diversity, equity and inclusion” is circulating the state Legislature, and some lawmakers believe it is the impetus for a bill blocking “critical race theory” in state colleges.

House Bill 2670 sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and backed by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is similar to the critical race theory law passed in 2021, a measure that caused an uproar in the Legislature and hard feelings over the teaching of historical horrors such as the Holocaust and American slavery.

The higher education bill is designed to protect students and staff who disagree with so-called “divisive concepts and ideologies” and enables them to challenge universities in court for trying to “indoctrinate” them in views that the white race should feel bad for oppressing the Black race for centuries.

The legislation isn’t necessarily based on the report being passed around by lawmakers, “Critical Social Justice in Tennessee Higher Education: An Overview.” But it provides insight into the mindset lawmakers are developing after receiving the information. 

The report calls for lawmakers to take several steps against universities, including reducing funding to those that emphasize “diversity, equity and inclusion,” saying those words are now used to divide the world into “aggrieved minorities and oppressive majorities.”

“This narrow ideological view is diverting universities away from their core mission toward a mission of leftist activism,” the report states.

It contends many Tennessee public universities are “dedicating themselves” to the ideology and points toward the University of Tennessee-Knoxville as the primary offender, reporting it has more administrators working on critical social justice than the rest of the UT system combined.

A report by a trio of conservative organizations, two of which are based out of state, is being passed around the legislature and is thought to add to the mindset some lawmakers have developed against the teaching of diversity issues.

UT-K has a strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion and nine administrators in 11 colleges whose main role is handling those parts of critical social justice, according to the report.

The report is written by Arthur Milikh, executive director of The Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, Anna Miller, education policy director at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, and Susan Kaestner of Middle Tennessee, founding director of Velocity Convergence and president of the Tennessee Forum, which has lobbied for school choice, collective bargaining reform and transparency for the Tennessee School Board Association.

House Bill 2670 would prohibit universities from taking action against students and staff who disagree with professors or colleges over “divisive concepts and ideologies or political viewpoints.”

The bill also would revise the duties of university employees whose primary duties involve diversity and require institutions to publish surveys of students and employees to assess the “campus climate” on the diversity of thought and comfort with speaking freely on campus.

State Rep. Ron Gant, a Fayette County Republican carrying the legislation for Sexton, passed the bill Tuesday through the House Higher Education Subcommittee.

Gant explained the measure is designed to increase freedom of speech on campuses. At the same time, it “prohibits adverse treatment of students or employees for refusing to consent to a certain ideology,” he said.

Some lawmakers consider it a higher education version of legislation the General Assembly passed in 2021 prohibiting critical race theory in K-12 schools. That theory, which has been taught mainly in law schools, deals with systemic racism in America, such as redlining, which for decades stopped Black families from buying homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who voted against the bill Tuesday, said he believes it is part of the “whole push to get rid of critical race theory,” which he calls a “dog whistle” for Republicans because the concept wasn’t being taught in K-12 schools when it was outlawed.

Mission statements for report-writing organizations:

  • Idaho Freedom Foundation: “To make Idaho into a Laboratory of Liberty by exposing, defeating, and replacing the state’s socialist public policies.”
  • Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life:Today’s conservative establishment lacks moral purpose and the strategy needed to fight the Left’s central doctrine: identity politics. Identity politics, having already conquered the nation’s major institutions, seeks to destroy the American way of life: republican self-government, equal protection of the laws, and the freedom of speech and thought.”
  • Velocity Convergence: Velocity Convergence is a non profit established for the purpose of education and advocacy on the issue of viewpoint diversity in our public institutions. We are specifically examining the lack of intellectual, ideological, and political diversity in our public institutions of higher education.

“It gives our colleagues across the aisle a rallying cry. … Initially we looked at it as you’re trying to oppress the true history that has occurred and the problems that have occurred in the U.S., and you’re not going to be able to suppress that. History’s stories have already told that,” Parkinson says.

He contends the report that appears to be helping fuel the legislation is more information from conservative think tanks designed to “create some energy for conservative legislators to pass legislation and use this as the basis for their facts.”

The legislation defines “divisive concepts” as those that exacerbate and inflame divisions based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or other ways “contrary to the unity” of the country.

The list of divisive concepts is similar to the list of prohibited teachings spelled out in the critical race theory law. The legislation mainly prohibits blaming the white race for the oppression of Black Americans over the past 400-plus years through slavery or segregationist laws.

For instance, students couldn’t be taught that a person is “inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive” because of race or sex; or, that a person “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;” or Tennessee and the United States are “fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”

The bill also prohibits teaching that promotes or advocates the “violent overthrow” of the U.S. government, as well as “race or sex scapegoating,” in which members of a race or sex would be considered “inherently racist.”

State universities would not be allowed to penalize, discriminate against or mistreat a student or employee for refusal to support or believe in any of those divisive concepts. In addition, a student or employee could not be required to endorse a specific ideology or viewpoint to be eligible for hiring, tenure, promotion or graduation.

Anyone who believes they’ve been mistreated could file a lawsuit against the university, according to the bill.

During debate Tuesday, Parkinson asked how the legislation would mesh with Gov. Bill Lee’s plan for Michigan-based Hillsdale College, a private, Christian institution, to come up with a UT civics program based on “informed patriotism.”

Gant responded that he didn’t want to “intersect” the two pieces of legislation but noted he would answer those questions when he introduces Lee’s bill on the Hillsdale College civics plan.

Speaker Sexton’s office did not respond immediately Wednesday to questions about the legislation.

Sen. Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican, said Wednesday he is carrying the measure for Lt. Gov. McNally. 

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, called the legislation a "dog whistle" for the right wing. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, called the legislation a “dog whistle” for the right wing. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Bell referred questions to McNally and declined to give specific incidents within Tennessee universities that spurred the bill.

“I think it’s just the general atmosphere we’re seeing in education right now,” Bell said.

University of Tennessee spokeswoman Melissa Tindell said Wednesday the university doesn’t mandate or advocate the “divisive concepts” identified in the legislation. She noted issues of diversity and divisive concepts “have been widely conflated” and are not the same.

“We support diversity and engagement, and we do not mandate or promote any ideology,” she said in a statement to Tennessee Lookout.

Tindell did point out the the bill recognizes academic freedom and First Amendment rights, mainly freedom of speech, as well as state and federal requirements to train students and employees on non-discrimination and the need to comply with academic accreditation standards.

The “Critical Social Justice” report contends the definitions of diversity, equity and inclusion have changed in universities. For instance, “diversity” now means “more” members of “oppressed groups” than members of “supposedly oppressive groups.” In a curriculum, “diversity means replacing books written by while males with authors of ‘historically underrepresented’ groups,” the report says.

The word “equity” once meant fairness before the law, but now it stands for statistical group parity, according to the report. In other words, “since blacks make up 13% of the population, they should be 13% of engineers,” it says.

A spokesperson for the University of Tennessee said the university doesn’t mandate or advocate the “divisive concepts” identified in the legislation and called a report citing UT “inaccurate.”

“Inclusion,” meanwhile, is defined as elevating the well-being of “aggrieved minorities” at the expense of the “supposed privileged.”
The report contends UT-Knoxville went from almost no diversity, equity and inclusion “infrastructure” in 2018 to a “fully built-out DEI infrastructure in the span of four years. It has significant plans to spread this narrow ideology into all corners of the university.”

It also claims the report shows how UT-K “went woke as a cautionary tale” for what is happening at other Tennessee universities.

In response, UT’s Tindell calls the report “inaccurate,” saying the university is not catering to “oppressed” groups as the study claims.

“The conclusions seem to be based on subjective criteria, made-up definitions, and the opinions of the authors” she says. “It draws conclusions from information received through records requests or online, and the authors made no attempt to understand the context of the information through questions or interviews.”

The goal of UT’s diversity, equity and inclusion program is to “provide quality educational opportunities for all people of this state,” Tindell says.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.