It is my sincere hope that this column reaches our Board of Directors and our chancellors. Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Agriculture Chancellor Larry Arrington recently made a decision that was simultaneously a blow to UT's effort to become a Top 25 university and to equal civil rights. In response to a request from faculty made in April, the two chancellors rejected the possibility of offering the same benefits to same sex couples as married couples: "We hope you understand that in our positions as leaders of an agency of the State of Tennessee, it is incumbent upon us to act consistently with the public policy of our state." It is incumbent upon us to act consistently with the public policy of our state. The statement is maddeningly vague and fails to specifically address which law these chancellors have chosen to hide behind, rather than make a difficult decision that would benefit our faculty members. I have never been ashamed to call myself a Volunteer, and I will display my diploma with pride, but chancellors Cheek and Arrington have blemished my alma mater, and that cannot be undone until they choose to support equal rights for all employees, not just heterosexual employees.
For a university that has put so much effort into becoming a Top 25 institution, this statement is remarkably counterproductive. UT can never expect to compete with Ivy League institutions, prestigious public institutions such as UNC or UC Berkeley, or even fellow SEC schools for the best professors if we continue to openly favor one group of people over another. Neither the state laws of Florida or Georgia recognize same sex marriages, yet both universities chose to disregard these discriminatory legal practices. As leaders of our state's flagship institution of higher education, Cheek and Arrington have a moral and professional responsibility to lead our university in a manner that serves as an example to the rest of the state, not hide behind outdated legal practices.
Laws are created by humans, infallible and subjective humans, and are subject to the same prejudices and flaws that we, the general public, are. Laws, therefore, can fall victim to the same biases as the people who created them, and can evolve over time. History is at the same time cyclical and linear: new issues arise constantly that appear to be "progressing" to a certain point, yet seemingly each new human rights issue can find opposition in the biases and prejudices of humans. Before gay marriage rights, citizens fought for the right of African-American citizens to live in an unsegregated society. Before the end of segregation, citizens fought for the right of women to participate in the political process. Our society has seen this struggle before, only now it has a different exterior. Segregation, denial of voting rights, even bans on interracial marriages used to be "the public policy of our state," yet that did not stop individuals from fighting to correct these injustices. The same will come to pass with same sex marriages and the benefits received from marriage.
As chancellors of a flagship research institution in a state that lags behind many other states in college education, Cheek and Arrington cannot continue to support laws and public policy that so blatantly discriminate against those who do not fit the traditional definition of "normal." History will prove that they have chosen the wrong side, and we can only hope that these men will make the brave choice to stand up to discriminatory public policy and support equal rights for all UT employees.
— Ron Walters is a senior in English literature, French, and global studies. He can be reached at email@example.com.