Beavers continues criticism of UT chancellor support of pride center

Staff Reports • Updated Jun 30, 2017 at 12:00 PM

Republican gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Mae Beavers continued Thursday to criticize new Chancellor Beverly Davenport for her decision to once again fund the school’s LGBT pride center.

Beavers said Davenport and her team are “disingenuous” concerning the announced plans to use taxpayer funds that previously supported the university’s Diversity Office to reinstate the campus LGBT Pride Center and hire a full-time director.

“The chancellor has made it clear that, at the very least, she will use state funds to hire a full-time director of the LGTB Pride Center and a few other staffers,” Beavers said in a statement Thursday. “Quibbling over the whether they have announced details concerning the balance of the funds doesn’t change the fact that the agenda of the Diversity Office is being restored regardless of how UT spins it. Perhaps they should call it the Duplicity Office instead of the Diversity Office.

“While the chancellor’s staff downplays their intent to restore funding for the Pride Center, the fact that there was a part-time director of the Pride Center when the funds were pulled by the legislature, and the chancellor now plans to fund a full-time director with taxpayer dollars makes it clear she does not appreciate the concerns that led to the legislature’s actions last year. She is certainly doing nothing to assure us that the same problems we experienced with the Diversity Office in the past won’t be repeated, regardless of whether it is called a Diversity Office or LGBT Pride Center.”

A release from Beavers last weekend stated inaccurately that Davenport has announced plans to reinstate a diversity office at UT.

It followed comments Davenport made after a UT board of trustees meeting last week, when she said she plans to hire a director for the UT pride center and spend some of the money that the legislature diverted in 2016 from the Office for Diversity and Inclusion to fund the center.

For the past year, the center was paid for by private funds and largely run by students after lawmakers redirected the $445,882 in funding for the office to minority engineering scholarships.

In an email Tuesday, University of Tennessee spokeswoman Karen Simsen affirmed Davenport sees the pride center as part of the student support services that ensure all students are able to succeed.

“To succeed in college, students must feel welcome; they must feel like they belong,” Simsen said. “That’s why student engagement and student involvement are a central focus from the start. Along with a position to lead the pride center, Chancellor Davenport plans to invest funds for education and training for Title IX and the prevention of sexual assault.”

Beavers, in her release last weekend, said Davenport plans to reinstate the diversity office, but Davenport hasn’t said either way whether there will be a diversity office. In her comments last week, she only said spending of the $445,882 that was diverted in a one-time move last year will take place in the Division of Student Life, which is a separate entity.

“The money will be spent on student success initiatives and programs that support an environment where all students can feel welcome and safe,” Simsen said Tuesday, responding to questions seeking clarification as to how the money will be spent and whether there will be a diversity office.

She did not offer any details on how much would be spent in the pride center versus other areas and said only that Davenport has spent her first five months at UT “engaging with many individuals and groups to gain a better understanding of the campus community.”

“She plans to provide an update to our campus as plans are finalized,” Simsen said.

UT is not currently advertising for a chief diversity officer, but it will be conducting a national search this summer for a full-time director of the pride center.

“Having a pride center is an integral part of the university’s overall commitment to support student inclusion and success,” said Wendy Bach, associate professor of law at the UT College of Law and chair of the Pride Center Working Group, a group of the Faculty Senate formed last year to look at the long-term viability of the UT Pride Center. “It’s great.”

Beavers said Thursday the university is also ignoring the prior use of taxpayer funding for the controversial “Sex Week” that drew the ire of legislators several years ago. 

“The inappropriate use of direct taxpayer funding of ‘Sex Week’ activities was stopped a few years ago; but the continued use of facilities and resources, including student fees, cannot be ignored or covered up,” Beavers said. “University officials blocked direct use of taxpayer dollars in March 2013, so it isn’t ancient history that university spokespersons and media should be ignoring or denying.

“As I pointed out last week, as governor I will appoint members of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees who will insure that the values of our taxpayers and the important oversight function of the legislature are appreciated and respected in the operation of the university. I am anxious to see if the chancellor embraces the values of our state in leading the University of Tennessee Knoxville or chooses to impose her values on the campus. Her plans for the Diversity Office funds may give us a clearer picture of the path she will follow.”

Bach applauded Davenport’s decision and said it will help UT fall in line with the practices of peer and aspirational institutions across the U.S.

Beavers, meanwhile, listed several reasons why she does not support funding a pride center, linking the center to the student-run Sex Week, as well as the diversity office’s promotion of gender-neutral pronouns and inclusive holiday parties that did not mention Santa Claus or Christmas.

Sex Week is a week of student-run events around sex education that also has drawn the ire of some lawmakers in the past for its salacious programming. It is run by the Sexual Empowerment and Awareness organization and is funded by student programming fees, not the diversity office or pride center.

The promotion of gender-neutral pronouns and inclusive holiday parties on the website of the former diversity office played a role in lawmakers moving to defund the office, which also oversaw the pride center before last year.

Beavers also said in her release that conservative students on UT’s campus are “being bullied into silence and submission by professors and administrators who see any opinion that contradicts their own liberal viewpoints as being unworthy of protection.”

Davenport responded by saying that the university is committed to protecting the First Amendment.

“We know that teaching and learning happen well beyond our classrooms and that students learn the most when they are exposed to a wide variety of viewpoints,” Simsen said in her email.

State Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, a member of the Senate Education Committee and co-sponsor of last year’s bill to redirect diversity funds, also said this week he was “very disappointed” with the chancellor’s decision to fund a pride center but that he was still waiting to see how her actions would play out.

“Diversity is for black, white, Asian, Latino, male, female,” Hensley said. “We do need a diversity of those things, but when we get into every small group getting some special treatment, no, I don’t think we should spend money on that. Everybody should be treated equal in college. I’m a firm believer in that.”

State Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, who has been a particularly outspoken critic of UT, said he wanted to see specific objectives laid out for the pride center, otherwise, “I would think it would be a waste of money -- a waste of taxpayer money, state money and tuition money.”

“It sounds like a feel-good program,” Daniel said. “How are they going to measure the success or failure of the program? What are they trying to do? It sounds like a waste of money to me.”

State Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, who sponsored the House version of last year’s bill, said in an email that he would propose new legislation “if UT uses state funds for the Pride Center and the center’s purpose is not in line with the values of Tennessee taxpayers.”

He did not respond to additional questions about what a pride center that fits with the values of taxpayers would look like.

Hensley also expressed general concerns about university spending and criticized the $181,638 salary that was paid to former Chief Diversity Officer Rickey Hall.

“We just throw money at creating new positions and I don’t know that that’s really necessary,” he said.

Beavers, meanwhile, criticized Davenport for having a “cavalier attitude” about spending after Davenport said that $450,000 is “not a lot of money.”

“Nearly a half-million dollars may not seem much to the Chancellor making over $585,000 a year, but it is a lot of money to the taxpayers of Tennessee who provide her salary,” Beavers said.

Rachel Ohm with the The Knoxville News-Sentinel contributed to this report via TNS.


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