Students and staff at public colleges and universities in Tennessee may soon sue if they believe they have been punished for not accepting ‘dividing concepts’ when discussing topics such as race and gender .
A Republican-backed bill passing through the state legislature outlines 16 divisive concepts, including someone being seen as ‘inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive because of their gender,’ and Tennessee or the United States being described as “fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.” The legislation says it covers “public institutions,” which seems to mean all public institutions of higher learning.
The bill – led by Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton – will be voted on by the state Senate next week. A senior lawmaker said The Tennessee Star that he thinks the legislation will pass.
Similar “dividing concepts” proposals are being considered in other states, such as Georgia and South Dakota, but Tennessee’s bill is unique in several ways.
In addition to facing potential lawsuits under the bill, public institutions in Tennessee should investigate complaints from students or staff who believe they have been discriminated against for not “adhering to a concept that divides”, as in a course or a training session. If the college determines that a violation has occurred, the employee found responsible will be subject to disciplinary action. A second offense may result in termination.
Colleges would be required to report annually to state legislators on the total number of complaints, investigation results and actions taken.
The amendment that requires complaints to be investigated remains under discussion in the state Senate, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Mary McAlpin, a professor of French at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and president of her chapter of the American Association of University Teachers, worries that the potential for lawsuits is having a chilling effect on what professors teach.
“Would the student win the case?” Probably not,” McAlpin said. “But the mere threat of these lawsuits could have a very real effect on what people say in class, and that’s our biggest fear.”
Another difficulty, McAlpin said, is that if a lawsuit accused a college employee of promoting a “divisive concept,” the college would have to get permission from the state attorney general to defend the employee in court. Without this authorization, employees would have to defend themselves, at their own expense.
In a statement to The Chroniclea spokesperson for the University of Tennessee system said the flagship campus does not require or advocate the “divisive concepts” described in the bill.
We support diversity and engagement, and we do not impose or promote any ideology.
“We support diversity and engagement, and we do not impose or promote any ideology,” the statement said. The legislation recognizes academic freedom and the First Amendment, the university said. “The bill also recognizes state and federal requirements to train students and employees in non-discrimination, as well as the need to maintain compliance with academic accreditation standards.”
The legislation would also prohibit public institutions from organizing mandatory training for students or employees if it included one or more of the “dividing concepts”.
The lawmakers behind the bill were inspired by a report released this year by several conservative advocacy groups. The report railed against higher education’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and seized on the common right-wing idea that they indoctrinate students — a misguided narrative that colleges challenge.
The groups claimed that “reform” was unlikely within the colleges. “Targeted action through the state legislature can, however, force change, including through fiscal and administrative reforms,” the report said.
A Republican supporter of the bill, Ron Gant, Deputy House Majority Leader, said this week that he rejected the “colleges’ promotion of concepts that attempt to cast a shadow over groups of people because of factors that are beyond their control. The legislation “would ensure that our public universities’ credible diversity efforts are not undermined by initiatives that seek to further alienate Tennesseans,” he said, according to the Times Free Press.
If you’re not talking about divisive issues, you’re not talking about history, you’re not talking about literature, you’re not talking about humanity.
State lawmakers might challenge the so-called divisive issues, McAlpin said, but they’re fundamental to what professors do in the humanities and the arts.
“If you’re not talking about divisive issues, you’re not talking about history, you’re not talking about literature, you’re not talking about humanity and what it means to be human,” McAlpin said.
The bill, if passed, could become yet another measure that censors important conversations about the country’s long history of racism and sexism, McAlpin said.
If state lawmakers can trick professors into thinking they might get in trouble for what they teach, she said, “then they’ve already got it right — none of these lawsuits happen or no, let alone whether they succeed or not.”