NASHVILLE — University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro lauded his school's commitment to diversity on Tuesday while acknowledging "some tension" as UT tries to be more inclusive.
"Campus environments that make all students feel welcome and valued are major factors in retention and graduation," DiPietro said during the school's second annual State of the University speech. "Because change has been involved in trying to fully create those kinds of environments at UT, there has been some tension."
And while the school president acknowledged change can be difficult, he said students need to be prepared for diverse workplace environments.
DiPietro's remarks, made in a speech in Nashville, come against the backdrop of conservative state lawmakers targeting UT in recent years over diversity initiatives on campus and an annual student-run "Sex Week."
Last year state legislators passed a law that stripped nearly $446,000 from the school's Office of Diversity and Inclusion and sent the money to minority engineering students instead. This came after the office infuriated some lawmakers when it recommended the use of gender-neutral pronouns on campus and advised against religious-themed parties or displays during the holidays.
Some lawmakers have their sights on UT again with a current proposal that aims to protect the free-speech rights of students with conservative views, something opponents say is already protected on campus.
The proposed legislation comes during increasingly fractious debates on the nation's college campuses about whether some types of speakers or speech should be banned from schools.
Some have argued that racists should not be given a platform on campus and hate speech should not be tolerated. Others have said some conservative speech is increasingly being labeled "hate speech" because opponents are trying to shut down their views.
DiPietro, in his speech, did not specifically address the legislation but invoked the name of former Senator Howard Baker who once famously said, "If we cannot be civil to one another, and if we stop dealing with those with whom we disagree, or that we don't like, we would soon stop functioning altogether."
"It's no secret that we currently find ourselves in a polarized, somewhat turbulent time in American life," DiPietro said. "Yet, I urge every member of the UT family to join me in seeing the window of opportunity I believe exists for us and the university."