Divisive Concepts Legislation: Resources and Information
During the 2022 legislative session the Tennessee Genral Assembly passed, and the governor signed, a new law that defines divisive concepts and places restrictions on colleges and universities. The restrictions make it illegal for colleges and the universities to mandate training related to divisive concepts as by the law. The law also restricts state funds from being used to provide faculty with incentives to include divisive concepts in the curriculum. Students, faculty, and staff have all expressed deep concern about the consequences and implications of this recent legislation. The university remains committed to its core values and to the values of the academy that protect academic freedom as necessary for the creation, distribution, and application of knowledge. Our intent is to provide the university community with information and resources that will demonstrate this commitment.
April 2022 Letter from Provost McCorkle
ETSU CORE VALUES
ETSU continues to be guided by its core values.
"In every respect, PEOPLE come first, are treated with dignity and respect, and are encouraged to achieve their full potential." Reaching full potential mean protecting First Amendment rights and academic freedom. Academic freedom allows university faculty to responsibly engage in professional and community service, teach students to engage with empirically-sound information, and conduct ethical and important research. The bill, as passed, says clearly that the law should not be interpreted to infringe upon the rights of freedom of speech or academic freedom. ETSU, as an institution devoted to regional stewardship, upholds practices, policies, and programs designed to serve the common good. As the AAUP principles indicate, “the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”
Our values statement continues, "RELATIONSHIPS are built on honesty, integrity, and trust; DIVERSITY of people and thought is respected." These values guide the work of the institution. All people deserve respect and dignity and the academy is enriched by exposure to different ideas, people, cultures, thought and practice. The law does not prohibit the work the Office of Equity and Inclusion is leading to build a university culture of inclusion and belonging for people from all backgrounds. Our accreditors and our employers require that our students learn to honor the ideas and cultures of others while approaching their own beliefs with inquiry and humility.
Nothing in the new law changes the University’s commitment to these values.
How will the legislation affect the university's equity and inclusion initiatives?ETSU will continue its commitment to equity and inclusion. The University's academic leadership, led by Provost McCorkle in partnership with Dr. Keith Johnson, will continue its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The Office of Equity and Inclusion will continue to host events including the Equity and Inclusion Conference scheduled for September. Additionally, University leaders will continue to work to recruit and retain a greater number of students, faculty, and administrators from underrepresented popultations. Many other colleges and administrative units on campus are also working to help the university reach its equity and inclusion goals; most colleges have appointed a leader (often an assistant or associate dean) who leads a team of faculty and staff to reach college-level equity efforts.
What changes is the university required to make as a result of the legislation?There are three actions the university must take in response to the legislation. First, ETSU will conduct a review of mandatory trainings and training materials to identify inclusion of the divisive concepts listed in the legislation. Most ETSU training is not mandatory and will likely not be affected by this legislation. Some mandatory training is required for compliance with federal law or other governance organizations. In these cases the legislation does not apply. Secondly, the university will be required to develop a survey, to be administered every two years, to assess campus climate for diversity of thought. The university will be required to publish the results of this survey on its website and will be required to present the survey results to various legislative groups. And finally, ETSU will not be allowed to use state-appropriated funds to incentivize faculty members to include divisive concepts in their courses.
Some of my course content requires students to engage with concepts the bill describes as divisive. Do I have to make changes to my course?No, section 7 of the legislation protects the academic freedom of faculty thereby allowing faculty to make expert choices regarding the content and delivery of their courses. This section of the bill also recognizes and upholds the right of faculty to engage with content defined as divisive for the purposes of program, college, or regional accreditation.
What action did university leadership take to effect the outcomes of this legislation?As is their practice, in January 2022, ETSU leaders began following proposed legislation that could affect the operations of the university, the work fo faculty and staff, and student learning and student life. University leaders worked for the following protections:
- the protection of academic freedom
- the protection of the accreditation status of academic programs
- the preservation of university values of diversity of ideas and people
- the preservation of voluntary training that includes ideas the legislation defines as "divisive concepts"
- the protection against new legal implications for teaching "divisive concepts" in the classroom.
- discouraging the inclusion of provisions that would have allowed students to opt-out of courses or other academic program requirements that included the discussions of "divisive concepts"
- the protection of academic freedom
Who do I contact if I want to learn more about legal protection for employees?The legislation enacted does not create a basis for any new legal claims against university employees. The Office of University Counsel continues to provide legal advice, assistance, and when necessary, representation to all employees acting within the scope of their official duties. For questions about legal interpretations of this new law, please contact the Office of University Counsel.