KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee just welcomed a record-breaking number of students to campus. The Knoxville campus was also ranked the most unfriendly university to LGBTQIA+ students in the country by The Princeton Review based on surveys given to students.
Since 1992, The Princeton Review has been an authoritative source of information that helps college students decide where they want to study. It ranks colleges on a variety of topics like their value for students and the quality of schools' academics.
They collect the opinions of college students around the U.S. Students can submit a survey at any time, but The Princeton Review will only accept one survey per student per year. The survey has 80 questions divided into four main sections: "About Yourself," "Your School's Academics/Administration," "Students," and "Life at Your School."
In the 2023 version of the Best 388 Colleges, UT was labeled the most LGBTQIA+ unfriendly. It beat colleges like BYU in Utah, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Alabama.
"It's not surprising to any of us who live in the community," said RJ Powell, a chaplain who works with students through the Tyson House Episcopal and Lutheran Campus Ministry.
In August 2020, it was also ranked as the second-worst college for LGBTQIA+ students. The college has landed on the list for several consecutive years. Its Pride Center has been threatened, shrunk and grown again hoping to help more students in the future.
And for many years, students have watched the state legislature take action against inclusiveness on campus. Tennessee lawmakers defunded the Pride Center in 2016 following controversies about pronouns. Officials also implemented severe restrictions on how the university could spend money on inclusiveness.
The law, which went into effect without former Governor Bill Haslam's signature, reallocated funding from the Officer of Diversity and Inclusion and gave it to a new scholarship fund. It also did not allow any funding or resources to go toward "the use of gender-neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays, or to fund or support sex week.”
Then-chancellor Jimmy Cheek denounced the state's decision, which removed the Pride Center as an office on UT's campus because it no longer was able to have faculty directing it. In the years since the law passed, the Pride Center was able to raise its own funds and hire staff.
UT President Randy Boyd also donated to Senator Mark Pody in 2021. The senator has been publically against LGBTQIA+ rights and filed proposals to strip marriage rights from LGBTQIA+ people. He since apologized for the donation.
"We hear about the discrimination, hatred, just overt homophobia, racism that are spewed literally out of car windows as I've walked around campus from time to time," said Powell.
Since then, the university said it has worked to be more inclusive on campus. The Pride Center has gotten additional funding, and it also organizes many events such as annual "Friendsgiving" events while working to educate people about LGBTQIA+ health.
"We know so many people who have worked so hard for LGBTQIA+ inclusion on campus," said Powell. "As dark as it may seem, sometimes we know that we did not stand by ourselves."
A UT spokesperson released a statement about the university's ranking. The full statement is available below.
"We are committed to being a campus where everyone feels welcomed, valued, and supported. The Princeton Review survey does not accurately reflect the progress we have made and the important work that continues on our campus. The Campus Pride Index, which called the Princeton Review rankings “deeply flawed,” is a more comprehensive view of campus life. Campus Pride ranks based on a 50-question survey and examines attitudes and perceptions of LGBTQ life on campus. The university ranks 4 out of 5 stars on the Campus Pride Index."
The nonprofit organization Campus Pride Index provides 50-plus self-assessment questions to participating universities asking them about LGBTQIA+ inclusion policies, campus services, organizations, and recruitment and retention efforts. The questions are weighted to "emphasize and add value to specific LGBTQ components," and the university receives a score and recommendations for how to improve.
This is in contrast to the Princeton Review's survey, which polls students at the school on how strongly they agree or disagree that "students treat all persons equally, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression." For UT, this means its "LGBTQIA+ Unfriendly" status is due to how students feel about their interactions with other students on campus.
These feelings were similarly held by students of varying racial and economic backgrounds, who largely disagreed with the statement, "Different types of students (black/white, rich/poor) interact frequently and easily." UTK was third on the list when it came to students saying there was little race/class interaction on campus.
"A college's appearance on a ranking list in the book is entirely the result of what its own students surveyed by The Princeton Review reported about their campus experiences as well as how they rated various aspects of their college life," The Princeton Review's methodology said.
In 2017, the Campus Pride Index posted an article to its website written by Chelsea Fullerton, the former Director of the Pride Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity at Lehigh University, which criticized the Princeton Review's LGBTQIA+ ranking methodology for being "one-dimensional." Specifically, Fullerton's criticism was that the rankings did not reveal the extent that colleges were actively supporting -- or opposing -- LGBTQIA+ students on campus through policies and initiatives.
"Prospective LGBTQ+ students who are considering disclosing their identities in their admissions applications and see lists like the Princeton Review’s 'LGBTQ Unfriendly' rankings might, with good reason, choose to stay silent – not just in the application process, but also in their first few weeks on campus, a critical time for students to get connected into resources and supportive community," she said.
When comparing past reports from both review organizations, UTK has improved its "LGBTQ-Friendly" status in terms of policy in the past decade. In 2011, the same Campus Pride Index study rated UTK "2 out of 5 stars," giving it low marks on most of its metrics for a lack of inclusive policies.
Even though it has improved in terms of policy, The Princeton Review survey reveals UTK has yet to reverse perceptions within its student body specifically when it comes to LGBTQIA+ students feeling accepted by other students across the campus community.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include the university's full response as well as specifics on the methodology of the surveys mentioned in the article.