Sen. Gardenhire key in lawmakers' decision to suspend UT diversity funding for one year

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga

NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers voted Thursday to strip next year's state funding for UT-Knoxville's Office for Diversity and Inclusion and divert the estimated $436,000 on a one-time basis into university engineering scholarships for minority students.

The compromise between the House and Senate used a Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

Gardenhire's version represented a softer nod to furious Republican conservatives' demands the University of Tennessee at Knoxville campus be punished for its annual "Sex Week" student activities, as well as controversies over the diversity office's suggested but not mandated use of gender-neutral pronouns and avoiding the word "Christmas" in holiday parties.

Approval came as lawmakers struggled unsuccessfully for the third straight day to wrap up their annual session, bogging down in the GOP-run House over intra-party controversies over whether to put a planned phase out of the state's Hall Income Tax on interest and investments into statute.

Another issue was grappling with minority Democrats' successful maneuver to put a spotlight on granting more property tax relief to disabled military war veterans. Several other issues are on the table as well.

Having hoped to be gone on Tuesday, House and Senate members will now be back this morning.

Lawmakers fumed over Gardenhire's compromise, saying it didn't go as far as they wanted while Democrats questioned the need to do anything.

"The question is how does this look not only to the rest of Tennessee, but the rest of the country?" said Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, whose district includes the UT campus.

He warned Republicans' retaliatory actions against UT will send a message to minorities, ranging from would-be student athletes to professors and researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, as well as corporations.

The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Gray, had demanded stripping the diversity office's funding permanently and using a quarter of the funds for police vehicle decals saying "In God We Trust."

In the end, Gardenhire refused to budge on the idea he says he got from a black UT engineering school graduate who first suggested to him in an email to use the money to resurrect a program that helped him earn his degree.

When a fellow Republican asked Van Huss what happened to the "In God We Trust" decals, the former Marine sniper dryly observed "that would be a question for the Senate sponsor."

Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, said the conference committee version was much better than the House's and voted for the conference report, which was approved on a 63-21 vote. Other than Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, a minister who often sides with the GOP on socially conservative matters, most Democrats voted no.

Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, complained the legislation sends a "disproportionately strong message" to the campus.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, wasn't happy either. The McMinn County lawmaker has crusaded against UT's "Sex Week," an annual days-long event, for the past three years. The event is intended to provide students information about physical, emotional and mental health in areas ranging from safe sex to recognizing abusive relationships.

But it's drawn fire for activities that have included a lesbian bondage expert, drag show and a campus-wide hunt several years ago for a "golden condom."

"This is a slap on the wrist compared to what should be done for some of the foolishness coming out of that department," Bell said of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

The office does not actually fund Sex Week, which comes out of student activities funds.

The GOP-run Senate approved the conference committee report on a 27-3 vote.

Gardenhire later said UT officials told him "they were excited about getting this program cranked back up and they may expand it in the future. They were really grateful about getting this."

Asked how he persuaded enough of his GOP colleagues to go along with his less-punitive idea, Gardenhire laughed and said, "I tried to use some reason.

"You know, you have to sit down and think, what are we trying to do," Gardenhire said. "We're trying to send a message. OK, we sent a message. Do they want to be destructive in sending a message or be constructive? So that was why I changed the House bill where it was just one year."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.