Rocky Top Goes Woke
How the University of Tennessee–Knoxville did an end-run around state legislators to implement a radical “antiracist” agenda.
Since 2020’s summer of racial unrest, universities across the country have increasingly embraced radical “antiracist” agendas, commonly under the guise of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies or programs. Even public universities in deep-red states aren’t immune to the trend—as the case of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UTK), discussed in a new report, demonstrates.
In May 2016, Tennessee’s legislature defunded UTK’s fledgling Office of Diversity and Equity for one year, diverting its monies toward minority scholarships. The office’s four employees either left the university or were assigned elsewhere. UTK thus had zero dollars and zero personnel dedicated to DEI during the 2016–2017 school year. While minority scholarships reflect the DEI cast of mind, they are probably a better use of such funds than hiring more DEI personnel.
Shortly after the legislature defunded the office, UTK released a strategic plan, Vol Vision 2020, that listed promoting “Diversity and Inclusion” as one of six priorities. Nevertheless, the school allocated no money to the achievement of that priority and proposed no metrics for its DEI policies. The Chancellor’s Council for Diversity and Inclusion also launched a “Campus Diversity Metrics Plan” but did so outside of the strategic plan process.
In September 2018, then-interim provost and senior vice chancellor John Zomchik initiated UTK’s breakout from the state’s de facto moratorium on DEI programs. Zomchick released a report that seemed mild but, if fully implemented, would transform the university into a DEI stronghold. The report called for requiring academic units to include “statements in their bylaws that reflect a commitment to diversity and inclusion”; to mandate integration of “diversity into all aspects of the college and unit/department”; “to submit annual diversity and civility plans;” and to staff search committees with members who actively affirm a commitment to DEI ideology.
UTK proceeded gingerly at first but, seeing no political resistance, made even bolder moves. In December 2018, UTK named Tyvi Small as interim vice chancellor for diversity and engagement. Since this move prompted no legislative uproar, UTK made Small’s position permanent in September 2019. With this move, the stage was set to roll out a more radical agenda. Among Small’s first actions after his permanent appointment was to demand that each college and department submit a “diversity action plan” before the fall 2020 semester.
Diversity action plans rolled in from each college and department, all built according to the model Small’s office had suggested. As per those plans, all of UTK’s colleges have either hired an associate dean-level official dedicated to DEI or will do so soon. Those associate deans will oversee the implementation of the colleges’ plans and will demand to see departmental plans. Each department has submitted diversity action plans, nearly all of which detail the same aspirations, methods, and policies. Among the most common features of these plans are aggressive affirmative action for student and faculty recruitment, requirements for DEI statements from all job candidates, extensive faculty and student training, implicit-bias training, anonymous departmental bias-reporting systems, and speakers and mandatory reading groups dedicated to DEI. These DEI efforts are now fully implemented at the department level.
Though UTK had zero administrators dedicated to DEI at the beginning of 2018, it now has at least 26. Though the budget for DEI was zeroed out in 2018, raw salaries for DEI officials, a very conservative estimate of costs, exceeded $1.8 million in 2021. Just as striking as these personnel and budget numbers is the transformation of academic life. UTK revised its General Education curriculum to emphasize “service learning” and “global citizenship,” indicating that the school is weaving progressive political activism into the curriculum.
UTK’s diversity plans put many academic disciplines in a bind. The physics and astronomy department, the faculty of which is entirely white and mostly male, had to invent a “diversity plan” knowing that 80 percent of physics Ph.D.s nationwide are men and that the discipline produced only 22 black Ph.D.s out of nearly 2,000 awarded in 2017, the last year for which we have reliable data. In light of this difficulty, the department promised to “provide a clear set of guidelines” about “expected behaviors” with respect to “diversity and inclusion” and to develop an anti-bias reporting mechanism. The department’s plan envisions no curricular or partnership changes; it aims merely to reflect the racial and sexual makeup of the “American physics community and, eventually, our nation.” Something has to give: either the school will stop devoting resources to a department that cannot deliver “diversity” for the foreseeable future, or the department will sacrifice professional standards in the name of those goals. Similar dilemmas confront the biological and engineering sciences.
Meantime, UTK’s new strategic planning process is underway. Unlike in 2016, the new DEI mission will include setting “standards for [students’] participation in a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive culture” and “requiring all students to enroll in a course that highlights relevant intersectional identities.” Though no one has specified the standards yet, they seem to be moving in the direction of speech codes and other kinds of “anti-bias” regulations. Attacks on free speech come only after the DEI apparatus is in place.
Other universities in the Tennessee system are also building DEI infrastructure and policies. None of the DEI apparatus is yet deeply embedded into the fabric of UTK, meaning that there is still time for Tennessee’s legislature to act, but that window is closing fast. And legislators in other states should take note.
This essay was originally published by City Journal on February 17, 2022.