KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek on Monday broke his silence on the allegations made in the Title IX lawsuit against the university.
In an email to faculty and students, Cheek called the lawsuit "uncomfortable" and disputed its claims that the university created a "hostile sexual environment" and violated federal laws in how it handled sexual assault cases involving male student-athletes, particularly football players.
While athletic director Dave Hart and head football coach Butch Jones addressed the lawsuit in various settings last month, Cheek had yet to say anything publicly on the matter.
"The lawsuit has generated negative publicity, particularly here and in Nashville, and all of that is very uncomfortable for many of those involved, and certainly for those of us who care so much about our community," Cheek said in the email.
"While I cannot specifically address the allegations in the lawsuit, I can say that any assertion that we do not take sexual assault seriously enough is simply not true.
"To claim that we have allowed a culture to exist contrary to our institutional commitment to providing a safe environment for our students or that we do not support those who report sexual assault is just false."
The federal lawsuit filed last month includes eight unnamed plaintiffs, six of whom claim they were raped or assaulted by Tennessee athletes.facebook
Earlier this month, the university filed a motion asking a federal judge either to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in Nashville, due to improper venue or transfer the case to Knoxville.
In that motion the university claims the lawsuit is "loaded with irrelevant, inaccurate and inflammatory material that appears to be included for the benefit of an audience other than the parties or this Court."
The filing also contained a potential witness list that includes university President Joe DiPietro in addition to Cheek, Hart, Jones and 24 other university employees; seven attorneys who have represented athletes in these cases (including student-conduct hearings); and 48 unnamed student witnesses, many of them current or former football players.
That list also includes former university employees Jenny Wright and Tim Rogers, who are mentioned often in the lawsuit, and David Randolph Smith and Lyon Chadwick, the plaintiffs' attorneys.
In his email, Cheek said Tennessee has been "in high gear" since 2011 in devoting more resources, education and support to handling cases of rape and sexual assault.
The chancellor also cited the full independent review his administration conducted in 2013.
Tennessee adopted 37 of the 39 recommendations the review committee made and is "well on our way" to implementing those recommendations, Cheek said.
"One of those recommendations actually changed the name of the Student Judicial Affairs Office to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, emphasizing a transition from a judgmental, punitive posture to one more focused on education, development and support," he said.
Other changes include specialized training for university police officers, the assignment of a UTPD special investigator to those cases and a revised and expanded sexual assault policy and student conduct code.
The university also developed protocols in responding to sexual assault cases and created the Sexual Assault Response Team, which has an accompanying advisory board that meets weekly.
There also are three new positions — sexual misconduct investigator, sexual health coordinator and case manager — in the Division of Student Life.
"I'd much rather spend all of these words enumerating all of the great positive things that are happening every day on our campus," Cheek said, "but since news is being made, I thought it important to share this perspective with you and to reassure you that we are on the case and the continued safety of all of our students is of the utmost importance to us."
Contact staff writer Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288.
This story was updated March 21 at 10:35 p.m. from an Associated Press story to a version written by Chattanooga Times Free Press staff writer Patrick Brown.