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Divisive Concepts Legislation: Information and Support

Many members of our campus community have shared concerns about state legislation that defines what it terms divisive concepts and prohibits their use in mandatory training among other things.

Read the statement by Chancellor Donde Plowman and Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor John Zomchick.

In the interest of keeping the campus community informed and supported, we repeat here our guiding principles and provide information about any changes the legislation will bring about.


Our Principles

We will protect our faculty’s academic freedom.

All faculty—tenured, pretenure, and non–tenure track—have the right to teach, research, create, and perform about their knowledge and understanding in their discipline. This academic freedom persists even when faculty members hold a minority view within their discipline and when others in and beyond the institution find their views contrary or objectionable.

We believe that viewpoint diversity and debate are essential to a UT education.

A true university education is one in which students hear, study, and discuss ideas that challenge their thinking and encourage them to consider points of view different from their own. Students should expect to hear ideas that make them uncomfortable, should be able to explain and master concepts they disagree with, and should feel free to take opposing views as part of civil academic discourse.  We remind all members of the campus community that the Campus Free Speech Protection Act—signed into state law in 2017—applies to everyone. The act endorses the fundamental responsibility of the university by defining what we are not to do: “It is not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed.” These principles are recognized in the Board of Trustees Policy Affirming Principles of Free Speech for Students and Faculty (BT0010). At the beginning of each academic year, we remind the campus community of the importance of fulfilling the letter and spirit of this act.

We are committed to diversity and engagement.

The issues of diversity and divisive concepts as defined in the legislation have been widely conflated; they are not the same. We do not mandate or promote any single ideology. We support our diversity and engagement work to make sure everyone in our campus community knows they matter and belong. We are proud of our diversity and engagement efforts, and we will continue our work in that area.

We want a culture of respect and open dialogue on campus.

We ask every member of our campus community—faculty, staff, and students—to show respect for one another when they discuss ideas and opinions that are different from their own.


Summary of Legislative Process

The Tennessee General Assembly passed the Senate version of the bill, SB2290, on March 28, 2022. Prescriptive language on investigations and language suggesting disciplinary actions for violations, which were included in previous versions of the legislation, were removed in the final version. The law went into effect on April 8, 2022 when the governor signed the bill. View the Public Chapter.


University Actions on the Legislation

University leadership worked to secure and maintain critical exemptions included in the legislation:

  • The legislation recognizes academic freedom and First Amendment rights, particularly freedom of speech.
  • The legislation recognizes the state and federal requirements to train students and employees on nondiscrimination.
  • The legislation recognizes the need to maintain compliance with academic accreditation standards.
  • The legislation recognizes that the university’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work can continue.

Legislators have stated numerous times on the record that the intent of the legislation is not to impact the teaching, debate, or discussion of any topic.

University leadership expressed concerns on prescriptive investigative language and worked to communicate concerns on language suggesting disciplinary action for violations. In both cases, the language was ultimately removed from the bill.

Representatives from the Office of the Provost, the Office of the General Counsel, and the Office of the Chancellor met with colleges and departments during the legislative process to discuss the legislation and answer questions.


Response to the Legislation

In response to the legislation, the university will take the following actions:

    • Because the legislation prohibits mandatory trainings around the list of divisive concepts as it defines them, university mandatory training will be reviewed. An initial assessment indicates that the university has few mandatory trainings, and it is questionable whether they include divisive concepts as defined in the legislation. The legislation recognizes that it does not apply to training needed for compliance and that mandatory training is not classroom instruction.
Review further guidance on mandatory training.
  • The university will need to create some survey and reporting instruments to comply with portions of the legislation that set requirements for surveys and reports.
  • The legislation prohibits the university from using state-appropriated funds to incentivize, beyond payment of regular salary or other regular compensation, a faculty member to incorporate one or more concepts the legislation identifies as divisive into an academic curriculum. The university has not had any past practice of providing that type of incentive, but leadership needs to be mindful of this restriction moving forward.

What Will Not Change in Response to the Legislation

  • The university will continue diversity activities and its commitment to diversity. The legislation requires employees whose primary duties are diversity-related to also work on intellectual diversity, which was already part of our planning for diversity initiatives.
  • The university will continue diversity and inclusion training. Trainings that are mandatory, as noted, will undergo review to comply with the legislation. Most diversity and inclusion training is not mandatory.
  • Hiring, tenure, promotion, and graduation practices will stay the same. The legislation says the university cannot require students or employees to reveal or endorse a specific ideology or political viewpoint to be eligible for hiring, tenure, promotion, or graduation. The university has never imposed such a requirement for hiring, tenure, promotion, or graduation.
  • The university will continue to address complaints and disciplinary actions through existing processes and policies, including board and handbook policies governing disciplinary actions against faculty of any type. Should students have concerns about their experience, the university already has multiple channels for them to share those concerns and have them addressed.
  • The university will continue to support robust, respectful debate in our classrooms. We expect all members of our community to show respect for different opinions and those who hold different opinions. The university will continue course offerings around race, racism, and other contemporary concepts so students have the intellectual tools to better understand the world around them. The legislation specifically recognizes academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Legal Protection for Employees

The legislation does not create the basis for any new legal claims against university employees. It recognizes existing legal rights that a student or employee may have, such as the right to bring a claim if they believe their First Amendment rights have been violated.

Generally, when individuals are sued in their official capacity as university employees for acts or omissions within the scope of employment, the Office of the General Counsel represents the individual and any judgment or settlement is paid out of university funds or other state funds. However, employees may have personal liability if they have acted willfully, maliciously, or criminally, or if their acts or omissions were done for personal gain. Although the Tennessee attorney general makes the decision on whether university employees may be represented, the Office of the General Counsel is usually granted authority to represent an employee. Campus leadership will request that the Office of the General Counsel take all reasonable steps to seek this authority in the event an employee is sued in their official capacity with regard to this legislation.

More information is available at counsel.tennessee.edu/liability.


Support

Contact

Faculty and staff do important work, including work that addresses challenging topics, and we are here to support you in that work. If you have questions or needs, contact provost@utk.edu and a member of the provost’s office will follow up and help connect you to resources.

Syllabus statement resource

As noted, the state legislation that defines what it terms divisive concepts recognizes academic freedom and First Amendment rights, particularly freedom of speech. In addition, legislators have stated numerous times on the record that the intent of the legislation is not to impact the teaching, debate, or discussion of any topic. As an additional resource for faculty who would like language on their syllabus that addresses civil academic discourse, the following statement is recommended.

Civil Discourse

A true university education is one in which students hear, study, and discuss ideas that challenge their thinking and encourage them to consider points of view different from their own. Students should expect to hear ideas that make them uncomfortable, should be able to explain and master concepts they disagree with, and should feel free to take opposing views as part of civil academic discourse.  We remind all members of the campus community that the Campus Free Speech Protection Act—signed into state law in 2017—applies to everyone. The act endorses the fundamental responsibility of the university by defining what we are not to do: “It is not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed.” These principles are recognized in the Board of Trustees Policy Affirming Principles of Free Speech for Students and Faculty (BT0010)