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VOL. 40 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 3, 2016

UT’s legislative spanking could have been worse

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In a state where many people bleed orange, the University of Tennessee found itself in an unusual position during the 2016 legislative session: fighting for its life.

The folks representing Rocky Top, typically a sacred cow, had to battle for respect after emails surfaced from UT-Knoxville’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion urging teachers to use gender neutral pronouns for transgender students and to downplay Christmas during holiday parties.

But just as Gen. Robert Neyland formed a football program built on defense and special teams, UT scrapped and clawed and came out relatively unscathed, even as lawmakers introduced 15 to 20 bills seemingly designed to punish UT for a perceived plunge toward Sodom and Gomorrah.

Ultimately, lawmakers passed legislation defunding the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and shifting $436,000 toward minority scholarships for engineering students. No more marketing of gender-neutral pronouns or student-sponsored Sex Week, either, based on the legislation.

It was an unprecedented move for the General Assembly to reach down into a department budget and move money around, more or less overruling the president and Board of Trustees. Elimination of Sex Week could pose a First Amendment question over free speech, too.

But in an era of discombobulation over gay and transgender rights, this sort of micromanaging is not shocking.

Some lawmakers, though, finally recognized UT-Knoxville’s value to the state and started looking for “constructive approaches to managing higher education moving forward,” says Lou Hanemann, UT’s director of policy analysis and government relations and advocacy.

“We would have rather seen nothing, but all things considered, I think this was a higher-ground approach to a solution as opposed to some of the other ideas put out there,” Hanemann says.

A rough start

UT entered the session without much bargaining power. Legal action alleged the university and athletic department of allowing an atmosphere of sexual assault, and gender-neutral terms such as “ze,” “hir” and “xe” were fresh on people’s minds, along with the perceived anti-Christmas email (a post on the school’s website encouraged employees to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise”).

Not only that, Sen. Dolores Gresham accused UT and other universities of “balancing their budgets on the backs of Tennessee’s students and working families.”

The Somerville Republican, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, introduced legislation to limit tuition growth and lock in rates for four years when freshmen enroll.

She presented information showing a 456 percent increase in tuition and fees at UT-Knoxville over the last two decades and pointed out the UT system has 1,465 employees making more than $100,000 a year.

Tuition at UT-Knoxville rose to $12,436 this year from $2,246 in 1996, leaving some with sticker shock after the meeting.

UT President Joe DiPietro met with state leaders not long afterward, and that bill never garnered much support.

But lawmakers were bound and determined to slap the university around for the Diversity Office’s upsetting emails.

One legislator wanted to use the department’s funds to make stickers saying, “In God We Trust.”

And in debate on the House floor, Republican lawmakers accused the office of “suppressing Christian thought.”

“If someone says they’re open and diverse, they’re probably not,” said Williamson County Rep. Glen Casada, chairman of the House Republican Caucus. “If they’re not open and diverse, we need to take their money away.”

Even as DePietro and the university argued there was no institutional effort to push those messages, UT also recognized the Legislature had the votes to do something.

“I think there was a wide calling for some type of slap on the wrist or some type of punishment for the pronoun deal and the holiday memo,” Hanemann says.

Amid such outrage, however, the House and Senate couldn’t agree on the mechanics of the bill to punish Diversity and Inclusion.

Hanemann credits Senate leadership and House Education committee chairs for finding a positive way out of the mess.

With the state of Tennessee in desperate need of students in science, technology, engineering and math fields, re-energizing a scholarship program for minority students in engineering is “not a bad option if you have to have an option,” Hanemann says.

State Sen. Randy McNally agrees that a number of legislators eventually decided it was time to quit hammering UT.

“But at the same time, I think there were some changes that had to be made. We’re responsive to our constituents, and there was a lot of concern about maybe not the upper leadership of the university but some of the things that were coming out of the university,” says McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican expected to be the next Senate speaker and lieutenant governor.

Despite the funding transfer, UT emerged in good shape, he says, noting the system’s budget was increased about $28 million with nearly $30 million more for capital maintenance.

The system also netted more than $70 million for buildings at UT-Chattanooga and the UT Health Science Center in Memphis. Meanwhile, UT-Martin’s match for a building program was lowered to 10 percent from 25.

A strong product

Amid the uproar, UT’s productivity over the last few years made Hanemann’s lobbying task easier.

With university funding now tied to retention and graduation rates, UT’s system-wide enrollment is up 7 percent since the Complete College Tennessee Act passed five years ago and the number of degrees awarded increasing more than 11 percent.

Student retention across the system is near 80 percent, and in 2016, UT will produce about 11,000 graduates.

Besides those numbers, during fiscal 2015 the UT system:

-- Generated $436 million in research and sponsored projects.

-- Registered a combined outreach to more than 4.7 million Tennesseans.

-- Raised $303 million gifts, pledges and bequests, a record.

Recent economic figures also show a $4.8 billion economic impact system-wide and creation or impact on 75,000 jobs statewide.

“The University of Tennessee has set or is accountable to metrics in a broad range of areas critical to public higher education or impacting quality of life throughout the state,” says spokeswoman Gina Stafford.

“The university is either meeting or exceeding targets in these strategic metrics, and we plan to continue to do so toward fulfilling the UT system’s mission to deliver education, conduct research, and provide outreach for the benefit of all Tennesseans.”

To be sure, the University of Tennessee is much more than the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

The university system points out:

-- UT Health Science Center contributes $2 billion annually to the economy and is responsible for more than 26,000 jobs.

-- UT Institute of Agriculture does more than $54 million in research while providing educational outreach to 3.3 million people and veterinary care to 21,000 animals.

-- UT Institute for Public Service, with five main agencies, responded to more than 28,000 requests for assistance in 2015 and trained nearly 15,000 people in government, business and law enforcement. Its business impact is estimated at $817 million.

-- Working with the UT Research Foundation, UT-Knoxville won a $70 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2015. It established the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, a UT-led consortium of 122 members in six states, which brought in another $189 million.

-- UT’s contract for managing Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy through UT Battelle was extended through 2020, and the DOE recent gave UT-Battelle its highest score ever.

In addition, UT is nearly halfway through a two-year trial period of self-imposed budget restrictions designed to change its business model, according to the university.

UT made the move after projections in 2014 showed it would face a $377 million funding shortfall by 2025 if it didn’t take action.

During debate over Gresham’s tuition freeze bill, UT officials pointed out the majority of the burden for funding has flipped over the last two decades or so from the state to parents and students, with the latter group now responsible for 60 percent.

Still, UT says state funding has helped it close some funding gaps, and it trimmed nearly $50 million through steps such as voluntary or early retirement at its campuses and elimination or reallocation of vacant positions.

These types of moves helped it hold tuition increases for fiscal 2016 to its lowest level in 30 years, 3 percent, to help fund UT-Knoxville’s $1.06 billion budget.

In June 2017, UT will make another assessment to see if it needs to find more cuts. Whether outsourcing of campus jobs will be part of the plan remains to be seen.

UT also avoided restructuring as part of the newly-enacted FOCUS Act, which will put Tennessee’s other six state universities under their own boards of trustees.

The analysis

Despite such successes, the University of Tennessee and higher education are too often seen as a bastion of liberalism in a state where conservative politicians rule.

Emails from UT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion enabled state lawmakers to fit the entire university into their convenient view of liberalism run amok.

Whether more legislation targets UT in 2017 “depends on the course the university takes,” Sen. McNally says, “and is it going to concentrate on educating students or are they going to get into some far-flung social issues.”

A graduate of the UT Health Science Center pharmacy program, McNally acknowledges UT has a number of distinguished alumni and many good people at UT-Knoxville.

“I think there’s some folks over there that are just out to cause trouble, and we’ve seen it in other campuses. I think in some of the Ivy League campuses and Missouri had some terrible problems,” McNally says. “It’s rough when a small minority can give the university a black eye.”

In its most recent conflagration, the University of Missouri banned protests that disrupt campus operations after a group of students rallied against racism and student debt as part of a Million Student March.

They want tuition-free college, student debt cancellation, minimum wage of $15 for campus workers and higher education divestment from private prisons.

They might get their way if Sen. Bernie Sanders is elected president. More than likely, though, they’ll be stuck with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, who might give them summer work for $7.50 at one of his hotels. Maybe someday older folks will figure out protest is part of what students do. Always has been, always will be.

But while some state lawmakers try to lump university campuses into a liberal basket, this type of view, which probably could be traced to the “era of Socrates,” is unfair and incorrect, Hanemann says, calling it political leveraging with no concern for the value of higher education or its effect statewide.

Fortunately, most of the Legislature saw through these attacks on Big Orange Country.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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