Tennessee Senate modifies higher ed ‘divisive concepts’ bill, sends it back to House

(The Center Square) – The Tennessee Senate has approved a bill that would prevent public higher education students and employees from being required to conform to “divisive concepts” or be graded based upon agreeing with those concepts.

House Bill 2670, which passed the House, 66-24, on March 7, was amended Monday by the Senate. The amended bill, which passed the Senate, 25-5, will head back to the House before it is potentially sent to Gov. Bill Lee.

“The amendment seeks to protect students and employees of public higher education institutions from being forced to believe or embrace divisive concepts on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or other criteria,” Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said.

Bell said the bill was similar to a bill passed in last session related to K-12 public education with a few key differences.

“In K-12 education, we told teachers what they could or could not teach,” Bell said. “Higher education employees have certain First Amendment rights that we can’t tell them that they cannot teach these. So this bill is not directed at what can or cannot be taught, but it’s directed at any adverse action that could be taken against somebody that didn’t conform to these ideas or didn’t accept these ideas or concepts.”

The bill requires colleges and universities to survey students and employees every two years about the openness to different ideas at each school. It also requires the schools to report the number of complaints and the result of investigations to legislative committees during budget presentations.

The Senate amendment to the House bill added a requirement for the survey results to also be presented to various House and Senate committees.

“I think it puts a chilling effect on our professors and our universities,” said Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, while explaining she opposed the bill and believed it was a critical race theory bill. “I also think that we’re taking lots of latitude and freedom away from our professors and administrators to teach without feeling they are going to be jeopardizing their funding at their colleges and universities.”

The bill also would allow students or employees to sue the school if they feel the rule is not being followed.

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, said he felt the bill was a “solution looking for a problem” and he never had heard of a student in Knoxville having any issues with “divisive concepts.”

“I’m not sure how much protection they need or how much they can be forced to do anything,” Briggs said, saying he was worried this bill was “overprotecting” adult students.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said, however, in the 1960s, he had a “Yankee Democrat” professor who gave him a grade of D in political science out of political disagreement.

“He wanted class participation, but he didn’t want mine,” Niceley said. “The amazing thing is that I was smart enough to realize that if I would shut up I could save my D and not sink down into an F.”