The Tennessee House of Representatives voted Monday to approve a bill that would strip state funding from the University of Tennessee's Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
The bill passed with a 66-22 vote after almost an hour of passionate debate punctuated by rounds of applause for speakers on both sides of the issue. The vote fell largely along partisan lines, with overwhelming Republican support.
Republican lawmakers have threatened to defund the diversity office for months after two controversial posts on the office website that promoted the use of gender-neutral pronouns and "inclusive holiday celebrations." University officials eventually removed both posts, but lawmakers have continued to question UT's diversity funding throughout the legislative session.
In remarks to the House, bill sponsor Rep. Micah Van Huss echoed the words of other critics.
"Lately, the actions of this office have been more about advancing a particular worldview than about creating an environment where everybody can feel welcome," said Van Huss, R-Jonesborough. "This office in no way reflects the values of my constituents, at least, and I don't think the vast majority of Tennesseans."
Lawmakers amended the bill Monday to send $100,000 of the Knoxville diversity office’s funding to a program that would print “In God We Trust” decals for law enforcement vehicles while sending the remaining $336,000 to minority scholarships. The original House bill would have sent all of the funding to the decal program.
Van Huss said that, moving forward, other university offices would be able to fund necessary diversity efforts. Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, agreed, saying that the Knoxville diversity office "makes people feel good, but it does nothing."
Speaking against the bill, Rep. Joe Armstrong said it was wrong for the legislature to micromanage UT's budget. He added that many students on the Knoxville campus viewed the bill as an attack on diversity there.
“Let’s let the university trustees run the University of Tennessee," said Armstrong, D-Knoxville. "Let’s make sure that we’re hiring qualified administrators to run the university, and let’s let our students be critical thinkers.”
The state Senate is still considering its own version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. That version was amended to divert all of the diversity office funds to minority scholarships. It is scheduled to be discussed Tuesday by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
Lawmakers would need to resolve the differences between their versions of the bill before it could become law.
University of Tennessee students created an event on Facebook calling on students and faculty to leave class en masse at 1:40 on Tuesday.
Organizers wrote on the event page, “For months our campus community has been rallying together day in and day out. It’s time for the legislature to stop interfering at UT, and it's time for our administration to commit to real progress for diversity on our campus.”
As of Monday night, more than 65 people planned to attend.