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‘Diversity action plans’ at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville leave free speech and academic freedom hanging in the balance

Entrance to University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Ken Wolter /

FIRE’s review of diversity action plans at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, found that some parts of the plans raise serious concerns regarding free speech or academic freedom.

As more colleges and universities make diversity and inclusion a central part of their mission, FIRE maintains they should see these values as complementary to expressive freedom, not at odds with it. Much depends on how an institution defines and pursues diversity and inclusion. 

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville is the latest university to go about it the wrong way by creating “diversity action plans” that would restrict free speech and academic freedom under the guise of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

FIRE wrote UT Knoxville last week, calling on it to eliminate the plans’ speech-restrictive components, or to at least ensure they are implemented in a manner that respects students’ and faculty members’ expressive rights.

FIRE has repeatedly sounded the alarm on DEI statement requirements that use vague or ideological criteria.

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman issued a statement noting campus units were developing diversity action plans as part of “a sustained push to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.” In late 2021, the National Association of Scholars submitted a public records request to UT Knoxville for a copy of each action plan submitted and approved. The group subsequently published a report finding the plans “institute a far-reaching curriculum overhaul for every academic department and espouse an unmistakably ideological orientation,” and make adherence to DEI “an effective litmus test for professional advancement.”

FIRE’s review of the diversity action plans found that while some parts of the plans (e.g., efforts to retain and attract more faculty and staff from historically underrepresented groups) are not objectionable from a free speech or academic freedom standpoint, many parts do raise serious concerns on those fronts.

DEI statement requirements

At least four UT Knoxville colleges would require faculty job applicants to submit statements demonstrating competence in or contributions to DEI, or explicitly assess DEI in faculty evaluations for tenure and promotion review. 

FIRE has repeatedly sounded the alarm on DEI statement requirements that use vague or ideological criteria to evaluate whether faculty members adhere to university-preferred views on issues of social and political importance, whether their teaching and scholarship is sufficiently promoting or incorporating those views, and sometimes even whether faculty engage in outside activism that aligns with the institution’s ideological aims.

As FIRE’s report on DEI statement policies explains, colleges and universities have a legitimate interest in ensuring their faculty are effective at teaching students of various backgrounds and identities, but these institutions must not “restrict employment or advancement opportunities for faculty who dissent from the prevailing consensus on DEI-related issues of public and academic interest.” California’s community college system, for example, proposed a regulation that would compel faculty to endorse and apply ideas like “racial equity,” “intersectionality of social identities,” and “axes of oppression” faced by members of “minoritized groups.”

Both the First Amendment and the promises of free speech and academic freedom that most colleges and universities make preclude compelled agreement with any political, moral, or ideological framework. Academic freedom also gives faculty the liberty to pursue their teaching and scholarly interests free from institutional coercion to filter their work through a prescribed ideological lens.

FIRE has had some success in urging universities not to impose politicized DEI statement requirements, though other institutions, such as the University of Oregon and the Indiana University School of Medicine, have failed to address our concerns. We hope UT Knoxville will take these concerns seriously and protect faculty rights. And we will continue to explore every potential means of preventing universities from imposing ideological litmus tests.

Mandatory syllabus statements

At UT Knoxville, diversity action plans at the College of Veterinary Medicine and at the College of Communication and Information would mandate that every faculty member include a DEI statement in their course syllabus. As with DEI requirements for hiring and promotion, this implicates faculty members’ right against compelled speech. When government actors, including public universities, wish to “disseminate an ideology, no matter how acceptable to some, such interest cannot outweigh an individual’s First Amendment right to avoid becoming the courier for such message.”

While colleges have the authority to require syllabi to include information on, for example, relevant institutional policies (such as a nondiscrimination policy), it violates the First Amendment and academic freedom principles to require faculty to include statements affirming contested political or ideological views as if the views are their own. UT Knoxville must ensure any syllabus requirements respect the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of conscience.

DEI-based curriculum and course assessments

Several diversity action plans at UT Knoxville also include curricular assessments and changes. The College of Law plans to “[a]ssess curriculum (including individual courses) for the inclusion of intercultural perspectives and issues related to social justice, equity, and the elimination of bias in teaching legal doctrine, policy, practice, and theory.” The College of Communication and Information would “[m]andate participation in providing DEI and cultural competency content in courses.” 

For its part, the College of Social Work plans to “review and revise course syllabi to ensure inclusive teaching content.”

As we said in our letter to UT Knoxville concerning these vague objectives:

It is also troubling that some UTK colleges seem poised to require faculty to revise course content to reflect certain DEI perspectives. FIRE recognizes colleges’ broad discretion to make high-level curricular decisions, but we caution against undue interference with individual faculty members’ academic freedom to use their pedagogical judgment and expertise to decide how best to approach their subjects and to communicate ideas to students. UTK must not require faculty to endorse or promote specific viewpoints in the classroom for the purpose of advancing certain social or ideological ends.

FIRE’s concern here extends to some colleges’ plans to use DEI-based student course evaluations. For instance, the College of Law would provide students the opportunity to evaluate faculty members on how effectively they “integrate intercultural perspectives in the classroom and in pedagogical methods to foster equity and inclusion.” The College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences would include “a domain on DEI perspectives and dispositions in teaching evaluations/student evaluations.”

Introducing this ideologically fraught issue into course evaluation opens the door to penalizing faculty whose course content does not reflect students’ or the college’s DEI-related views. Again, UT Knoxville may certainly evaluate faculty based on their effectiveness at teaching a broad range of students, but these vague objectives seriously risk intruding on faculty members’ academic freedom to determine the content of their courses.

Bias reporting systems

One other troubling objective in two of the diversity action plans is the development of a bias reporting system. The College of Arts & Sciences plans to “[d]evelop a mechanism for reporting bias incidents or other climate and civility issues locally.” Meanwhile the College of Nursing would “[c]reate a system for internal (CON) reporting of DEI complaints and processes to follow to investigate and settle to [sic] issue.”

UT Knoxville must ensure any syllabus requirements respect the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of conscience.

Universities are free to provide additional support to students affected by bias or bigotry beyond existing policies banning harassment and discrimination. But, as FIRE’s research has shown, bias reporting systems too often expose a wide array of protected student and faculty speech to monitoring, investigation, and punishment by administrators and/or law enforcement.

It is well-established that public universities have no constitutional authority to investigate or punish students or faculty for speech merely because others find it offensive. As we warned UT Knoxville:

Even bias reporting systems without an independent enforcement mechanism can have a serious chilling effect on the campus speech environment, as the mere prospect of administrative intervention is likely to cause students to self-censor views that may upset others. Encouraging students to report each other for expressing unpopular or controversial opinions undermines the university’s fundamental role as host to an open and vigorous discussion of ideas. 

UT Knoxville certainly has a responsibility to respond to unlawful behaviors, such as harassment, discrimination, and true threats, and it already has mechanisms to do so. We told UT Knoxville that any “bias reporting system that the university nevertheless implements should define bias or DEI incidents narrowly to cover only such unlawful behaviors and avoid impermissibly overbroad and vague definitions.” 

And if any college establishes a bias reporting system covering additional speech, it “must make clear its sole purpose is to provide affected parties with support and that incidents encompassing First Amendment-protected expression will not face investigation or punishment.”

True diversity and inclusion depends on expressive freedom

Institutions of higher education can pursue both expressive freedom and diversity and inclusion; they should not pit these values against one another. In fact, a robust vision of diversity and inclusion — one that encompasses diversity of thought and perspective, and works in tandem with the values that underlie the central knowledge-seeking purpose of a university, such as critical thinking, open-mindedness, curiosity, and intellectual humility — makes free speech even more important. 

On a campus with all kinds of people with different perspectives, disagreement is inevitable. Free speech and academic freedom are necessary to protect that diversity of ideas, and to ensure all voices — including those airing unpopular or minority views — are included in the conversation.

While the precise ways in which UT Knoxville colleges are implementing their diversity action plans is unclear, FIRE has had enough experience with these types of policies and proposals to confidently forecast a bad outcome for expressive freedom. UT Knoxville must take affirmative steps to secure a better result.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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