DiPietro to take policy changes to UT trustees after Sex Week resolution

DiPietro to take policy changes to UT trustees after Sex Week resolution

March 14th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

This is Ayres Hall on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville.

Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Times Free Press.

Dr. Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee, talks to reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in this 2013 file photo.

Dr. Joe DiPietro, president of the University of...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - University of Tennessee system President Joe DiPietro says he plans to present university trustees with recommended policy changes similar to those contained in a just-passed Senate resolution condemning the Knoxville campus' student-led Sex Week program.

Senators voted 23-6 on Thursday for Senate Joint Resolution 626, which charges Sex Week organizers want to "thrust a radical agenda on students" during the annual six-day event.

Sex Week provides students with a series of programs, games and speakers on sexual health, relationships and issues ranging from date rape to safe sex and gay sex.

Upset conservative lawmakers have been raging about the student-sponsored event since it began last year. In the latest action, senators approved Senate Joint Resolution 626, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. Last month, the House passed its own resolution sponsored by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, condemning the organizers of Sex Week.

But Bell's resolution also directs UT officials to develop new rules cautioning parents or students paying student activity fees that any organization's programming "may be of a controversial nature to you."

It requires they specifically "opt in" and agree to let their money go toward program funding for the student-led groups.

DiPietro has defended students' free speech rights, saying the university legally can't ban speakers. But denying funds generally "earmarked for speakers" brought in by organizations is another matter, he said.

"We'll take that resolution to our board and work with our board about managing our university," DiPietro said. "That's happened before -- in the 88th General Assembly in 1973. So we take it very seriously and we'll work with our board through the steps that they've asked us to.

"We believe there's not a problem with it legally as far as we can tell," he added.

During Thursday's debate, Bell said in response to questions that his "directing" resolution "does not have the force of law. They [UT officials] could choose to ignore this. I hope they choose not to."

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, has criticized the resolution, saying he has legislation that would restrict UT by law. It's unclear whether DiPietro indicating the university intends to take Bell's resolution to heart will affect the plans of Campfield, who has fought with UT on any number of issues.

Student activity fees are in the $340 to $370 range, Bell said in response to another question posed by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who appeared concerned over the impact on athletics. Bell said his resolution singles out student "programming" and wouldn't affect athletic programs. It comes to about $20 of the overall activity fee, he said.

Bell began the debate earlier saying he was hoping to keep debate at a "different level" from what occurred in the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, questioned what legal basis there was for the resolution's assertion that Sex Week organizers were using the event to "thrust their radical agenda" on students.

Bell then read an email of complaint he said he received from the mother of a female UT-Knoxville freshman. The mother said her daughter had avoided Sex Week programs but found it impossible to avoid them when walking on campus to classes.

"Just listen," Bell said, reading from the email. "Are you aware that organizers of this awful event have people in a giant penis costume and a giant vagina costume attacking students -- this is her word -- attacking students as they walk across campus?" said Bell, a social conservative.

Observers say a group of young students watching the debate from the Senate gallery snickered as Bell read the email.

DiPietro acknowledged later that "we've heard of that." But he said a picture he saw "was very cartoonesque. I mean, you need to portray them as not anatomically correct. But it's what you might see on Halloween on almost any campus across the nation.

"That said," he added, "we need to be respectful of other people's values and have an environment that doesn't create problems for other people's personal values. ... It's a careful dance."

Earlier this week, DiPietro sent a letter to Bell and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, raising concerns about all the focus on Sex Week.

He said the university system is making great strides, which seems to be getting lost.

"You can take a look how we have never done research to the extent we're doing now, by whatever parameter you look at. We're graduating more students per unit of time. Our graduation rates are going up. Our retention rates are going up. You look at outreach, strong across every county."

Measured against the requirements of the 2010 Complete College of Tennessee Act, which rewards public colleges and universities for boosting graduation rates, the system is doing well, DiPietro said.

"What I think we need to focus on -- and not just this one event, we haven't had a consequence like this in 40 years -- ... so here we are in a circumstance where we really would like to get down to brass tacks about things we can do to improve our university. And I think we're doing very well, we're headed the right way.

"And," he added, "we're all sort of distracted by this hot-button item."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or asher@timesfreepress.com.