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Tennessee Republicans Can Stop the Insanity

The woke takeover of universities is advancing with the tacit approval of Republicans in a deeply red state.

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(samray/Shutterstock)

“Big money maker.”

The words of a Vanderbilt University Medical Center doctor in regards to the transgender surgeries the hospital performs on minors were shocking in their honesty. The only thing more horrifying than child mutilation in service to ideology is child mutilation in service to mammon. Hearing it admitted from the podium in a public lecture only made it worse. Forget making prostitution legal; the sale of human flesh is more profitable this way. 

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Matt Walsh’s recent report on the pediatric transgender clinic at the medical facilities associated with the prestigious Middle Tennessee school has already made waves in the state and across the country, as it should. Republican Governor Bill Lee has called for an investigation of VUMC, and the state’s House Republican Caucus chairman and majority leader have also promised to ban gender-affirming treatment for minors. But the Tennessee General Assembly won’t be back in session until January, more than three months from now. In the meantime, some have already wondered if a condemnation of gender-affirming treatment for minors would be tacit approval of gender-approving treatment for adults. At any rate, it’s hard not to wonder if, like so many other scandals, this will blow over before the root of the problem is addressed.

Vanderbilt is not Tennessee’s only problem school. As one of the more liberal institutions in the state, in part thanks to its proximity to Nashville, it has always been at odds with broader Tennessee’s conservative tendencies. But out in the east, on the public dollar, similar tensions are brewing. 

The University of Tennessee has several campuses across the state. While perhaps less prestigious than Vanderbilt, to a native Tennessean it is often the top choice of college, in part due to the appeal of its legendary football program and the license to trash talk Alabama and Florida. In the laundry list of radicalized universities, it is not near the top. Schools in a Southern, deeply red state just don’t spring to mind when we envision diversity, equity, and inclusion boards. But, like so many other institutions, UT has become a breeding ground for activism in recent years, and perhaps more fervently so because of its location. 

Shortly after the death of George Floyd in 2020, UT required every school and administrative unit to produce its own “Diversity Action Plan.” The effect of these plans, reported by journalist John Sailer, was overhauled curricula across the university—not just once, but periodically, to reflect adherence to changing mores. The Haslam School of Business, named for the former Republican governor, promised to reassess its curriculum for “issues related to social justice, equity, and the elimination of bias.” The college of education, health, and human sciences required at least 75 percent of its instructors to revise their syllabi annually to “reflect increased self-knowledge” of these progressive issues. The school of social work introduced a new minor, Social Justice, and promised to adopt critical race theory as a framework.

Unlike Vanderbilt, however, the University of Tennessee is not presided over by the creator of the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board at the University of Chicago’s school of public policy. UT’s president is a man named Randy Boyd, a native of Knoxville and an alumnus of the school he now directs. A professed conservative, Boyd ran in the Republican primary for governor of Tennessee in 2018. He was endorsed by the former governor, Bill Haslam, and countless party members, and—though he ultimately took second place to Lee—was regarded as the establishment protege.

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The university is going leftward under Boyd’s leadership, and perhaps it is only for lack of attention. Still, last October had to have raised some eyebrows. After fundraising for a state senator who had proposed a ban on gay marriage, Boyd, it seemed, could not take the heat. Boyd pulled his support for the candidate, apologized, and (since that is never enough) committed the state’s university to the cause to cover his own backside. Boyd vowed UT would raise its “campus pride index” score and promised to advocate for LGBTQ-friendly policies on the legislative level.

Boyd also stood by silently as the university hurriedly rescinded admission to a varsity cheer captain within days after a video surfaced of her using a racial slur in high school, several years prior.

“The university takes seriously our commitment to fostering a Volunteer community that values equity, inclusion, and that promotes respect for all people,” the official account tweeted after the incident.

Of course, like every other state school, the University of Tennessee is also beholden to those who hold its purse strings—in this case, a litany of Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly and Republican governor Bill Lee. Of the 99 members in the state House, 72 were Republicans in the last session; of the 33 state Senate seats, 27 were Republicans. While most seats are up for reelection in November, if history holds true, the Republican supermajority will remain.

So why is this happening in such a red state? It’s a question not enough of us are asking. It is the right’s perennial problem that it assumes leftward movement is irreversible; that, as the name suggests, progressivism must only progress. But the traditional wing of Tennessee has power—or rather, unbelievable access to it, if it didn’t lack the political will to use it. For all the talk about the culture war on the right, it seems the politicians are only willing to take action when it doesn’t ruffle feathers. Perhaps, too, the prestige of the university still subdues otherwise bold minds. But it should not, not today.

For Governor Lee’s part, he has made improving education a top issue for his governorship, and has increased the state’s education budget significantly since he was elected in 2018. Lee has also introduced a new program at the University of Tennessee, under Boyd’s leadership, to promote American civic education and, if the marketing is true, to combat anti-Americanism. Boyd, accordingly, assembled a bipartisan board which includes Phil Bredesen, the former Democratic governor of Tennessee, and the leftist historian Jon Meacham.

As a research university with a wide-reaching hospital system in Middle Tennessee, Vanderbilt’s impact, though smaller than that of UT, is much more lasting, as Walsh’s reporting details. Though private, the university still receives a good deal of state dollars through research grants. They are also eligible for a share of more than $463 million the state has budgeted for student scholarships in 2022-23. To make those resources contingent on a certain kind of behavior is well within the job description of a state legislature.

A leftward shift may be endemic at American universities today, but not because Tennessee, and similar red states, have lacked power to curb it.

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