Trouble in Paradise? (Part 8)

Or, Why Do Red States Like Tennessee Allow Radicals to Hijack Their Taxpayer-Funded Universities?*

A recently-arrived Volunteer warns his fellow Tennesseans about the scourge of wokeness in higher education.

Thanks to Instapundit (here), Tennessee Conservative News (here), Real Clear Policy (here), and Legal Insurrection (here)!

I am not a native Tennessean, but I attended UT. The other UT—the University of Texas at Austin–with the other shade of orange. I lived in Austin for 10 years, during law school and for a period after I retired from practicing law, and one of my children graduated from that other UT, so I am pretty familiar with the goings-on at what the Burnt Orange crowd calls the Forty Acres, home of the Longhorns. It’s a microcosm of what is happening at “elite” universities all around the country: identity politics, critical race theory, “social justice,” intersectionality, the LGBTQ agenda, and all the rest of the leftist indoctrination masquerading as higher education.

The administration and most of the faculty at the other UT are completely out of step with the voters and taxpayers in Texas who pay their often-exorbitant salaries. So long as they comply with state and federal law, private colleges can do whatever they want—subject to finding parents willing to pay the tuition or students willing to borrow money to pay it—but state schools should represent (or at least not insult) the state’s taxpayers, who foot the bill.

I wrote many articles about hijinks at my alma mater for national publications, and the need for reform, but a few years ago I concluded that a social media campaign directed at alumni of the other UT would be more likely to generate political pushback where it is needed—in the Texas capital. Like most public universities, the other UT is governed by a Board of Regents appointed by the (Republican) Governor, and relies on appropriations from the (Republican-controlled) Legislature. So, I started a Facebook page, “Stop the Insanity at UT,” which now has almost 2,600 followers.

I have continued the page even though my wife and I fled the People’s Republic of Austin in 2019 to seek refuge in Tennessee. It gives me an excuse to monitor the shenanigans in higher education, at the other UT, and elsewhere.  I don’t track developments in Tennessee as closely as I do at the other UT, but I have started to pay attention in my adopted home state. 

The bad news is that our UT—the University of Tennessee—and other state-funded universities in the Volunteer State are not immune from the disease of wokeness. My experience at the other UT teaches me that the disease needs to be treated early; if it metastasizes, wokeness rapidly spreads and becomes incurable. We are not to that point in Tennessee yet, but intervention by the political establishment in Nashville is certainly warranted—even overdue. Unless arrested, it will only get worse. Let me give you some examples.

First, let us establish a baseline for what a sensible higher education policy in a conservative, majority-Republican state should look like—and in large measure was, as recently as 2016. The lesson started with a controversy in 2015 at the state’s flagship university, UT-Knoxville (UTK). The campus “diversity” office promoted the use of gender-neutral pronouns for students and celebration of “Sex Week,” an event that had begun a decade earlier at Yale University. Sadly, both of these things are fairly common in higher education today.  The announcement for Sex Week at UTK described the event thusly:

Event topics include religion and sexuality, sex in the media, the science of orgasm, a relationship workshop, abstinence and virginity, pubic hair removal and the intersection of race and sexuality. We hope to see you at our most popular events, the Drag Show and Megan Andelloux’s talks about consent and communication, sex toys, and secret fantasies! 

The following year, the festivities featured BDSM (shorthand for bondage and sadomasochism) and “butt stuff.” Perversion, in other words! Just the type of education every parent hopes their children will get at UTK! Not surprisingly, the event was controversial among conservative lawmakers and drew criticism from evangelist Franklin Graham.

Commendably, legislators listened to the criticism and exercised their “power of the purse” by de-funding the diversity office at UTK the following year–in 2016–to the tune of $436,000. Four staff positions, including the “Vice Chancellor for Diversity,” were eliminated. The director of UTK’s UT Pride Center (a pro-LGBTQ office) was reassigned to a faculty position in the University Libraries department. Some of the funds were cut outright, others reallocated to other purposes. Unfortunately, the measure was temporary—in effect for only one year. In hindsight, this appears to have been an optical gimmick by lawmakers to fool voters into thinking the Legislature was serious about reform. They weren’t.

In the absence of legislative constraints, after the brief “time out,” the woke mob at UTK predictably roared back with a vengeance. Here are some things that have happened since then:

1. UTK has restored the “diversity and engagement” bureaucracy, and doubled down on the woke agenda, making gender-neutral pronouns seem prosaic. Every academic department at UTK will now have a diversity officer who will help create a diversity plan for each college:

Each academic college has designated a current faculty or staff member as a diversity partner, and will create a diversity plan for each college to address what students, faculty and staff need. While the UT System has started establishing goals for the entire university system, plans for each college will be designed around what those students and faculty need to thrive at UT, said Chancellor Donde Plowman. (Emphasis added.)

UTK’s Vice-Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement announced last year that:

“It’s really about creating environments and spaces where people can be their authentic self, whether they’re first-generation students, or students of color, or underrepresented background, a LGBTQ-plus student, whatever that might be,” said Tyvi Small, UT’s vice chancellor for diversity and engagement. “We just want to make sure that folks felt like they matter and belong and have a place here in their state’s flagship, land-grant institution.”   

2. “Critical race theory,” the neo-Marxist ideology that claims all black are oppressed, American society is systemically racist, and all whites harbor “implicit bias” and exhibit “white privilege,” has insinuated itself into many academic departments at UTK. UTK even has a “Center for the Study of Social Justice” and something called a “Critical Race Collective” which includes ten UTK faculty members. The mission statement of the Critical Race Collective states that:

Given that at its most basic level, education is a forward looking and transformative exercise, we believe that the institutional setting of the University of Tennessee is a crucial space to engage in critical race scholarship, pedagogy, and social justice activism.  As a Critical Race Collective (CRC) we strive to create a space where support, community, and solidarity is [sic] fostered; collaborative critical race scholarship can thrive; and where active participation in social justice organizations on and off campus is furthered. This includes fostering a production of knowledge process constituted through the experiences of communities of color, critical scholarship, and transformative change. Members of the CRC are focused on several aspects of critical race scholarship in interdisciplinary fields such as geography, psychology, sociology, education, Africana Studies, and the arts & humanities, such as philosophy. (Emphasis added.)

UTK already has an Office of Equity & Diversity, an Africana Studies Program, a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program, and a network of woke faculty that calls itself the Intersectionality Community of Scholars. The UTK College of Social Work sponsors a Social Justice Innovation Initiative grant program. In 2019, grants were used to promote leftist activism (lobbying), intersectionality, and training sessions with the radical Highlander Research and Education Center regarding “the problematic social, political, and psychological factors around sexism and racism.” The UTK College of Education has become a hotbed of critical race theory. Even the UTK library has a Diversity Committee. The tenacles of leftism at UTK are growing.

3. Wokeness has not just infected the faculty of certain academic departments; the UTK administration has been infected.[1]  In an incident that attracted national attention, at least in higher education circles, UTK embraced the so-called “cancel culture,” succumbing to the identity politics lynch mob to punish a hapless student without due process. A high school student and competitive cheerleader from Leesburg, Virginia, Mimi Groves, had applied to and been accepted at UTK, and had made the top-ranked UTK cheerleading team, when a spiteful high school classmate released a three-second Snapchat video (made in 2016, when Groves was 15) in which Groves uttered a racially-sensitive term while announcing that she had passed her driving test.

Groves’ vindictive classmate—a person of color–admitted that he had been holding the video for years to release when it would do the greatest damage to Groves. It worked. “I taught her a lesson,” he bragged. UTK ignominiously withdrew Groves’ acceptance and kicked her off the cheerleading team based on a years’-old youthful indiscretion. As one news report summarized: “The University of Tennessee’s cheerleading squad is the reigning national champion — making the teen’s penance for uttering the racial slur all the more devastating to her.” According to news reports, “Groves is now studying at a local community college.” All based on a three-second social media gaffe made years ago. This sickening display of political correctness, reported in the New York Times, should make all Tennesseans furious. 

4. It gets worse. An organization will reflect the personality of the people running it. This is the inspiration for the expression “Personnel is policy.” Without responsible adult supervision by non-woke grown-ups, higher education resembles a high school class with a substitute teacher: chaos, spit balls, and misbehavior ensue. When college athletes on scholarships start acting like SJWs, with the approval of their coaches, you know things have gotten out of control. Earlier this year, UTK’s women’s basketball team took a knee during the national anthem (with the support of their coach). ESPN quoted coach Kellie Harper:  “It’s been hard to watch things on television, and know where things are in the world,” Harper said of events such as Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol in Washington. “But hopefully we can help be the change, maybe a positive light.” The problem starts at the top. Randy Boyd is President of UTK, and Donde Plowman is Chancellor. (Plowman got her doctorate at the other UT.)[2] Time for new leadership.

5. This was not an isolated occurrence. The entire UTK athletic department has gotten woke. During the “Summer of Discontent” in 2020, when the nation was caught up in the hysteria unleashed by the self-inflicted fentanyl overdose death of a career criminal named George Floyd in Minneapolis, UTK athletes expressed support for the radical organization Black Lives Matter by organizing a march down Volunteer Boulevard chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “No justice, no peace.” According to news reports: “UT student-athletes led a march through campus against systemic racism on Saturday. Different teams with hundreds of students, coaches and school leaders joined in to make their voices heard.” The UTK administration cheered them on: “Hundreds of UT athletes, coaches, campus leaders and students showed up with masks on to support. The university displayed signs encouraging social distancing at the event.”

6. UTK is not alone. Other campuses in the UT system are mimicking the epidemic of wokeness sweeping the country. UT-Chattanooga has an extensive social justice bureaucracy, complete with an “Equity and Inclusion” department, an Office of Multicultural Affairs, a Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement, and “diversity plans” for some academic departments. UTC also has a Department of Social, Cultural and Justice Studies that confers degrees.  Good luck getting a job with one of those worthless degrees. What a waste of taxpayer resources! Under the leadership of Chancellor Steve Angle, UTC has gotten fully woke. Here was a recent headline in The Tennessee Star: “University of Tennessee Chattanooga Hosts ‘White Allies and Accountability’ Lecture.” What was the lecture about? The article explained that

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) is kicking off their spring semester focus on social justice with a discussion of “white allyship” and accountability. The virtual session, titled, “Moving Forward Together: White Allies and Accountability,” is part of Moving Our Campus (MOC) Forward, a series of events and talks focused on equity and inclusion. Facilitators mentioned that this first session falls within the overarching theme for their 2020-2021 schedule: dismantling racism.

The article noted that:

According to a variety academia echelonswhite allies are those who acknowledge the inherent privilege of their race and role within the alleged ongoing oppression against other races, especially Black people. Even if a White person doesn’t believe they are racist, they likely are guilty of “unconscious racism,” commit “microaggressions,” and harbor “implicit biases,” to name a few indiscretions. Accordingly, a true white ally engages in “anti-racism,” by advocating non-stop for racial justice, such as in policing or education, and fighting against racism.

This lecture is part of an ongoing series called MOC (Moving Our Campus) Forward. UTC explains that “All MOC Forward events are centered on one theme: Moving forward together to dismantle racism.” Previous programs have covered topics such as “microaggressions” and “implicit bias.” This is indoctrination, pure and simple. All of these woke “innovations” are unnecessary, expensive, distract from the legitimate mission of higher education, and constitute avenues for mischief by the apparatchiks feeding at the taxpayer trough.

7. Nor is the problem limited to the UT system. The notorious charlatan and hate crime hoaxer Al Sharpton was hired as an adjunct professor at Tennessee State to lecture on social justice. The architect of the Tawana Brawley hate crime hoax in 1987, and the anti-Semitic Crown Heights riot in 1991, Sharpton  is also a longtime tax cheat who (along with his scam organization, National Action Network) owes the IRS millions of dollars and faces numerous tax liens.  In short, Sharpton is one of the most despicable figures in public life—the consummate grifter. Yet he has been hired to lecture on “social justice” at Tennessee State, and will bilk Tennessee taxpayers to the tune of $48,000 to teach one course for one semester. This is outrageous, but I have yet to see a critical comment from any Tennessee elected official. Who is representing the taxpayers in this state? What are they afraid of?

ETSU’s basketball team takes a knee during the national anthem, with the coach’s support. To her credit, Rep. Diana Harshbarger criticized them, calling the practice “disrespectful.” Ditto Rep. Scotty Campbell.

8. Even Tennessee’s two-year community colleges are getting into the act. Last year, Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville hosted the school’s first “Latinx Family Visit Night.” The government should be color blind, period. No preferences and no special treatment. When state-funded institutions start organizing special events for particular racial or ethnic groups, that is a sure sign that identity politics is at work. The other clue is use of the term “Latinx,” a made-up word that is intended to be a gender-neutral reference to those of Hispanic descent. In real life, no Hispanic uses the term. It is entirely a virtue-signaling invention of academic SJWs.  And taxpayer-funded institutions in Tennessee are pandering using this bogus vernacular. Yet I have not heard a peep of protest from anyone in authority.

This barely scratches the surface. I will continue to track developments.

In other words, UTK (our UT) and other state schools are descending into the fever swamp of radical ideology and identity politics, aping UC-Berkeley and other “woke” institutions. Why do our legislators permit this? Why does the Governor’s hand-picked Boards of Trustees permit this? There is no good reason. It is inexcusable and unacceptable. Republicans hold super-majorities in both house of the state legislature, and every statewide elected office, including Governor. If Republicans cannot control state-funded higher education in Tennessee, they are impotent and ineffective—or worse, gutless.

The Legislature holds the power of the purse. The Governor controls the boards overseeing all state-funded institutions of higher education in Tennessee: the 12-person University of Tennessee Board of Trustees,[3] which oversees all campuses of our UT; the 10-member Tennessee State University Board of Trustees;[4] and the 19-member Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees all state-funded two-year colleges (community and vocational) in Tennessee.[5] Ditto the other state universities (MTSU, ETSU, University of Memphis, etc.). The Governor chooses the boards who hire the presidents who are responsible for running the various campuses, and the Legislature pays for it all.

This is not a federal problem. Congress is not to blame. Our lawmakers cannot blame Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer. If the Governor or the Legislature wanted to stop this nonsense, they could do it with a phone call or the stroke of the pen. Yet identity politics is running amok, and getting worse! Right here in the Volunteer State, one of the most conservative states in the country. Our elected officials do nothing to stop it! Why is this a problem?

1. Woke universities are indoctrinating our children—poisoning the well. Today’s college students are tomorrow’s voters. Poison their minds, and we are doomed.

2. Woke universities waste money. All the bloated diversity bureaucracies, useless administrators, and worthless “grievance studies” faculty cost money. A lot of it—millions of dollars a year. Using taxpayer money to denounce the very people who are subsidizing the public universities adds insult to injury.

3. Woke universities create factions or special interests which build upon themselves. Coalitions form. Alliances emerge. Empires are created. Once “critical mass” is reached, it is difficult to eradicate. The Hive is bad enough as it is. It needs to be nipped in the bud.

4. Most seriously, allowing state-funded universities to be taken over by the Left evidences a lack of will. Higher education is a canary in the coalmine. If the politicians can’t fix this, what credibility do they have on other issues? This is easy compared to many other problems and challenges–low-hanging fruit. Who do they think they represent?

Let Gov. Bill Lee and your state legislators know if you oppose UTK and other state schools becoming indoctrination centers for SJWs. Demand that they take action. They serve you.

[*] This essay is the eighth in a series of articles on my blog, Misrule of Rule, exploring challenges facing the Volunteer State.

[1] Some good news: UTK students have not been as eager to drink the progressive Kool-Aid as the administrators and faculty, or as “woke” college students in other states. Growing up in Tennessee instills a certain resistance to foolishness. Maybe it’s the Scotch-Irish influence. Despite the existence of a pro-LGBTQ “Pride Center” at UTK, and all the proselytizing and indoctrination that entails, to the consternation of the misfit minority, UTK is the most “LGBTQ-unfriendly” public university in America.    

[2] Her bio on the UTK website brags that Plowman “appointed the university’s first vice chancellor for diversity and engagement,” and in her prior position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she oversaw “the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.” She is a SJW.

[3] “The Board of Trustees is the governing body of the University of Tennessee, overseeing the educational and operational activities of the statewide University system.”  The Governor appoints 10 of the 12 members.

[4] The Governor appoints eight of the 10 Trustees.

[5] The Tennessee Board of Regents consists of 19 members:  12 lay citizens appointed for six-year terms by the governor, with one each from the state’s nine congressional districts and three grand divisions; one voting and one non-voting faculty member from among the system institutions appointed by the governor for a one-year term; one student from among the system institutions appointed by the governor for a one-year term ; and four ex-officio members–the Governor of Tennessee, the Commissioner of Education, the Commissioner of Agriculture, and the Executive Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, who is a non-voting member.

  • “Mark Pulliam is one of the few truly fearless, devastatingly incisive, original and yet deeply learned commentators on the contemporary legal scene.  His new blog is a welcome addition and a splendid and provocative resource.”
    Professor Stephen B. Presser
    Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus, Northwestern University School of Law
  • “Mark Pulliam is the Walt Longmire of legal conservatism. You don't want to be on the wrong end of his pen. His commentary on law, politics, and policy is not to be missed.”
    Richard Reinsch II
    Director of Law and Liberty, Liberty Fund, Inc.
  • “Mark's blistering criticism of the foibles of the lawyering class and crackpot judges is a worthy penance for a recovering attorney. And it is our gain.”
    Michael Thompson
    Shareholder, Wright & Greenhill, P.C.
  • “Maybe this man’s degree is written in crayon."
  • "Mark Pulliam fancies himself a Paul Revere of the right."
    Froma Harrop
    Syndicated columnist
  • “With the flourish of a pen, Mark Pulliam makes bad guys rhetorically bleed and weak guys physically cringe. It's awesome.”
    Michael Quinn Sullivan
    President & CEO, Empower Texans
  • "Mark Pulliam, writer and thinker extraordinaire, has a new blog. Make sure to visit and register. Mark Pulliam's new blog is a thing of wit and intelligence."
    Bradley J. Birzer
    Professor of History, Hillsdale College, President of the American Ideas Institute, and editor at large of The Imaginative Conservative
Featured In

Sign up for updates

Get the latest updates, news, and alerts directly from the source.
We promise, we don't spam.

Featured Tweets