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While restricting lessons on impact of racism, Gov. Lee and state leaders create an institute for American civics at UT

Governor Bill Lee was surrounded by Chancellor Donde Plowman, UT President Randy Boyd, and other state representatives Thursday to formally start the center.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Governor Bill Lee, University of Tennessee System President Randy Boyd, UTK chancellor Donde Plowman and many others gathered on Thursday to formally create the "Institute for American Civics."

He said the institute will be guided by a board of bipartisan statesmen, according to the governor. He spoke during an event at the UT on Thursday, formally signing the legislation that would create the institute.

It is part of SB 2410, which would require UT to submit a report to legislators and the governor about "opportunities and challenges in civic education and engagement in Tennessee."

An amendment to the bill established the "Institute for American Civics" in Knoxville. According to the amendment, the institute would be meant to foster an understanding of the structures and institutions of state, local and federal government.

It would also explicitly further the "understanding of principles and philosophies that contributed to the foundation and development" of the U.S. and Tennessee. 

It would also "promote civil discourse and constructive debate" according to the amendment, while also teaching students about the "rights and responsibilities of American citizenship, fundamental democratic principles, and the ways those principles are expressed" in government.

"The institute will model civil discourse, and it will provide those engaged with the institute, students, an opportunity to practice learning to live with disagreement," Gov. Lee said during the event.

The institute will be able to enroll students, hire staff and develop courses in major and minor programs. It will also facilitate internships and hold events, while also being allowed to "take other actions as appropriate" with approval from the UTK chancellor and the UT System President, Randy Boyd.

"We also want to be able to support students of being able to get a great education and be able to go out across the state and help be more engaged citizens. One of the challenges we have in our state and our country is that people are not being engaged in government," he said."A democracy can't succeed if only 8% of people show up to vote."

The board will be made up of 13 members, and at least nine of them must be or have been tenured professors or administrators. Two must be distinguished former elected or appointed U.S. officials, and two must be members of the board of the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy.

The President of UT would designate a member of the board to serve as chair for a term of 2 years.

"One of the core values of American democracy is the ability to constructively disagree, and I think in today's world, a recognition of that is more valuable than ever," Lee said during the event. "It is right and healthy to live in a state where people have different ideas and different priorities."

He also said students would be able to get degrees from the institute.

It comes during a time when legislators across the U.S. try to restrict the ability of educators to teach about the impact of racism and slavery in the U.S., including in Tennessee.

A bill that restricts what educators would be able to teach at UT was also signed into law in Tennessee on April 8. A list of what that bill restricts teaching is available below.

  • That one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex
  • That a person, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive — whether consciously or subconsciously
  • That a person should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of their race or sex
  • That a person's moral character is determined by their race or sex
  • That a person, by virtue of their race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex
  • That a person should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress because of their race or sex
  • That a meritocracy is inherently racist, sexist or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex
  • That Tennessee or the U.S. is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist
  • Promoting or advocating "the violent overthrow of the U.S. government"
  • Promoting "division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people"
  • Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges or beliefs to a race or sex, or to a person because of their race or sex
  • That the rule of law does not exist but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups
  • That "all Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"
  • That governments should deny to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the law

The new institute will be in the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.