A few weeks ago, UT's administration pulled funding for "Sex Week" after state legislators took offense with some of the more risqué items on its curriculum. Although the organizers of "Sex Week" have managed to come out on top of this controversy, their struggle sets a new precedent of academic persecution in Tennessee.
When news about "Sex Week" first broke, lawmakers like Stacey Campfield and Bill Dunn were practically foaming at the mouth. Campfield called for a complete review (and implied reduction) of the UT's budget, and Dunn is now leading an inquisition into the university's budget office in an attempt to harass the individual responsible for giving "Sex Week" the green light, all because UT students came together and voiced their desire for comprehensive sex education at the college level. Never mind the fact that "Sex Week" would have cost the state less than Chancellor Jimmy Cheek's upcoming bonus alone.
What's worse is that rather than coming to the defense of their student body, UT administrators turned tail and gave in to the state's demands. This is where the real problem lies: not in the fact that we have a conservative legislature, but in the fact that we do not have an administration willing to assert its autonomy against the illegitimate whims of that legislature. The whole beauty of the university system is that it's supposed to be able to set its own curriculum. It's dynamic. It provides students and researchers the ability to address important issues as they see fit without excessive political or ideological oversight.
When the administration failed to stand behind "Sex Week," it failed to stand behind its entire student body, its research staff and its faculty. More so, it failed to stand behind the notions of academic freedom and democratic decision making that we were all promised when we agreed to attend UT. It sent the message that we Volunteers are not free to conduct our business in peace, that we must always be watching over our shoulders. To be blunt, we've been had.
As a graduate student and member of the Graduate Workers Organizing Committee (GWOC) – part of United Campus Workers – this is particularly disconcerting, just as it should be for all faculty and staff on campus. Simply because "Sex Week" managed to make it out of the foray does not mean that the rest of us can breathe any sighs of relief. Now is the time, more than ever, for teachers at UT to stand behind their students and demand the freedom and democracy that we all deserve. If we do not, then we are ultimately granting state lawmakers the authority to dictate our curricula and persecute one of the last bastions of academic freedom here in Tennessee.
If you think this is far fetched, think again. State lawmakers have already expressed disdain for programs on campus promoting climate science, evolution, race and gender equality, etc. Who is to say they won't use their newfound privilege to silence these issues as well? GWOC stands in solidarity with "Sex Week," because we realize the threat this issue poses to ALL of us as students, teachers and researchers. This time it was "Sex Week," next time it may very well be your program on the line.
— St. Thomas LeDoux is an alumni of UT and current MS student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.