Legislation protects free speech and viewpoint diversity at our universities

May 18, 2022

Arthur Milikh

Executive Director

This article originally appeared in Tennessean on May 16, 2022. It was co-authored with Susan Kaestner and Anna Miller. Susan Kaestner is the founding director of Velocity Convergence. Anna Miller is the education policy director at the Idaho Freedom Foundation. 

The legislature’s recent legislation ensures that “diversity training” and liberal ideology cannot be compelled or forced on students.

We do not believe a recent article, “What Tennessee’s bill banning diversity training really means for colleges,” accurately portrays the reality on the ground regarding the advance of progressivism in our higher education system.

Our collective organizations support viewpoint diversity — specifically examining the lack of intellectual, ideological and political diversity in our public institutions of higher education.

Earlier this year we released two reports. The first, “Critical Social Justice in Tennessee Higher Education: An Overview,” looked at the spread of far-left ideology that divides the world into aggrieved minorities and oppressive majorities, reducing people to a group identity grounded in immutable characteristics.

Our report found that all of Tennessee’s 11 universities have taxpayer-funded administrators dedicated to diversity, equity and Inclusion, and many have strategic plans and offices dedicated to DEI.

We also published in-depth research that focused solely on the University of Tennessee at Knoxville: “Critical Social Justice at University of Tennessee Knoxville: A Case Study.”

UTK’s spending on CSJ administrators was at least $1.8 million a year in 2020 with at least 26 administrators. Additionally, every academic department was required to develop a diversity action plan. Although each plan is unique, multiple plans promote job evaluations that include assessing “diversity activities,” bias training in various situations, including for search committees, faculty, students and/or administrators, and diversity statements for job candidates. Diversity statements are essentially partisan political statements.

In news earlier this year, the University of Memphis announced a program that would pay professors $3,000 if they redesigned their curricula to align with “diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice.” Fortunately, it was quickly recanted.

The reason the state legislature is pursuing legislative recourse focused on higher education is because a large imbalance of viewpoint diversity is now endemic on our publicly funded college campuses here in Tennessee.

We applaud the legislature for ensuring the First Amendment right of free speech. Its recent legislation ensures that “diversity training” and liberal ideology cannot be compelled or forced on students. It also empowers students and faculty with legal recourse if they believe their rights of free speech have been violated.

The legislation states that universities should strengthen and increase intellectual diversity among students and faculty. And that public universities shall survey students and faculty every two years to assess the campus climate with regard to diversity of thought and respondents’ comfort level with speaking freely on campus, regardless of political affiliation or ideology, with the results being published on the institution’s website. More transparency is a good thing.

Gov. Bill Lee recently released a statement defending free speech in higher education. Tennessee is once again leading the nation as the governor endeavors to establish the Institute for American Civics at the University of Tennessee, which can be an antidote to the cynical, un-American behavior we’re seeing in universities across our nation.

The spread of divisive ideology is happening across our country, and Tennessee is not exempt.

We do not move forward by stifling speech, but rather by allowing all sides to voice their opinions without fear or repercussions. Viewpoint diversity and the embrace of American exceptionalism will mean that Tennessee can be a beacon for academic freedom. Our universities will attract both professors and students who value viewpoint diversity and the ability to learn in a truly open higher education environment that is focused on merit, learning and skillsets to prepare students for future jobs and not to be professional activists.