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Tennessee universities refuse comment on how they will implement new intellectual diversity law

‘Duties … must include efforts to strengthen and increase intellectual diversity among the students and faculty’

Public university leaders in Tennessee are staying silent on how and when they plan to follow a new state law that requires them to implement intellectual diversity on their campuses.

Diversity offices, presidents’ offices, and media affairs’ divisions at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, University of Memphis, Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University have not responded with answers to emails and phone calls from The College Fix over the last 10 days asking about their plans to follow the relatively new law.

Last spring, Tennessee passed HB 2670, which outlawed mandatory critical race theory in curricula as well as hiring and promotions within The Volunteer State’s public institutions of higher education.

But tucked into the legislation is another key clause.

“Under this bill, if a public institution of higher education employs employees whose primary duties include diversity, then the duties of such employees must include efforts to strengthen and increase intellectual diversity among the students and faculty of the public institution of higher education at which they are employed,” it states.

The University of Tennessee Knoxville, University of Memphis, Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University all have employees dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. But they would not explain to The College Fix what diversity employees are doing to “increase intellectual diversity” some six months after the bill’s passage.

The Fix had asked “What steps/efforts is your institution taking to ensure/include/strengthen intellectual diversity?”

The College Fix not only sent its media requests to campus spokespersons, but also to deans, vice presidents and other top officials listed on the universities’ websites who are charged with DEI endeavors. Not one taxpayer-funded DEI employee responded.

Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Tyvi Small, was among those who did not reply. According to a public database of salaries at the university, Small makes $270,000 per year.

Keith Johnson, vice president for equity and inclusion at East Tennessee State, also did not respond. Emails to the University of Memphis’ Center for Workplace Diversity, and Inclusion and Office of Equity and Inclusion at Tennessee State University, similarly went unanswered.

Reached by phone Thursday, East Tennessee State University’s spokesperson Joe Smith did not send answers to The Fix’s question.

Laurence Pendleton, general counsel and secretary to the Board of Trustees at Tennessee State University, emailed The College Fix on Sept. 23 saying he would provide more information, but did not respond to subsequent follow ups.

Doug Kufner, communications director for Republican Speaker Cameron Sexton, who sponsored the bill, provided an emailed written statement to The College Fix: “This legislation does not hinder endeavors within higher education aimed at combating discrimination. It is a proactive solution that puts guardrails in place to ensure any diversity efforts by our colleges and universities do not become divisive by casting shadows upon groups or individuals for circumstances that are beyond their control.”

Kufner did not respond to follow-up emails and phone calls asking exactly how lawmakers will ensure the intellectual diversity proviso of the bill will be followed.

The law states that it “requires each public institution of higher education to conduct a biennial survey of the institution’s students and employees to assess the campus climate with regard to diversity of thought and the respondents’ comfort level in speaking freely on campus, regardless of political affiliation or ideology.”

“The institution must publish the results of the biennial survey on the institution’s website. This reporting requirement will be repealed on July 1, 2028.”

Currently, the University of Tennessee is working to launch an Institute of American Civics to teach about the founding principles of America and promote civil discourse and constructive debate as part of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s “America at its Best” agenda.

MORE: Here’s the pro-free speech letter U. Tennessee student paper wouldn’t run

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.