With a crowd of Arkansas Tech University students and other supporters of the Russellville college filling a room to capacity at an early-morning budget meeting, a legislative committee did not take up an amendment that proposed ending funding from the ATU Department of Diversity and Inclusion.
The effort to undo the diversity department, which is being led by Reps. Trevor Drown (R-Dover) and Mary Bentley (R-Perryville), seems to have stemmed from a sex education event sponsored by a student group, Spectrum, which advocates for the LGBTQ community. A flyer for the event, “Sex on the Lawn,” included the logo of the the Department of Diversity and Inclusion, although the department was not a sponsor of the event.
The amendment, which would strip funds in the appropriation bill for ATU, was on the agenda of the Special Language subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee until its sponsors pulled it down yesterday. It could return when Special Language convenes again next Wednesday. A separate amendment by Sen. Greg Standridge (R-Russellville) appeared on the agenda of the full Joint Budget Committee, which met immediately after this morning’s Special Language meeting. Standridge’s amendment proposes eliminating a single administrative position at Tech by reducing the number of associate deans of students from five to four. Standridge, who is ill, was not present today, and his amendment was referred to a separate Joint Budget subcommittee, Personnel. That subcommittee next meets on Tuesday.
Here’s the calendar of legislative meetings for the next week, which is always subject to change.
The Arkansas Tech University board met yesterday to “discuss concerns raised by some local legislators related to the ATU Department of Diversity and Inclusion,” according to a statement posted on the ATU website. The board unanimously adopted the following resolutions:
1. That no Arkansas Tech University Department of Diversity and Inclusion logo or designation shall be placed on any advertisement, notice or flyer that is not sponsored by the Arkansas Tech University Department of Diversity and Inclusion.
2. All future proposed events sponsored or provided by the Arkansas Tech University Department of Diversity and Inclusion shall require review and approval by the Arkansas Tech University Board of Trustees.
Whether that nod towards compromise will mollify the offended legislators remains to be seen.
Emma Scarbrough is a junior from Fayetteville and the president of Spectrum. She said the organization is “Arkansas Tech’s LGBTQ advocacy and support group on campus.” It primarily hosts educational and entertainment events throughout the year, she said. In addition to Sex on the Lawn — an “all-inclusive sex education event” — Spectrum will have a Pride walk in April, and usually sponsors a drag show and an event for National Coming Out Day. (It is worth reiterating here that Spectrum, a student organization, is entirely separate from the university’s Department of Diversity and Inclusion; Spectrum merely included the department’s name on its flyer.)
Scarbrough said Spectrum isn’t the source of a lot of controversy among the Tech student body that she was aware. “Mostly, we receive overwhelming support … if there are people who take great offense to our events, we don’t hear from them,” she said. Scarbrough said she wasn’t sure why legislators were targeting the department, but suggested the troubles predate the Sex on the Lawn flyer. “It seems like it’s been a longstanding issue they’ve had with the department. Rep. Drown said there have been different incidents over the past two and a half years …. In reaction to Sex on the Lawn, they were like ‘OK, this is it.'”
Scarbrough referenced a recent interview that Drown gave to an online media outlet in Russellville, the Local Rundown. In the interview, Drown said the effort to get rid of the diversity department was the work of “eight senators and representatives” who represented the River Valley or “alumnis of Arkansas Tech.” He listed a number of grievances with the department, including “transgender-friendly bathrooms at a university that at the time had six transgender students out of 12,000,” and the school’s handling of “a young woman who made a bad judgment call” by wearing blackface to a Halloween party. “She was literally drug over the coals and made the be the villain when all she did was go to a Halloween party and use bad judgment,” he said. In the video, Drown affirms that he and the other legislators are targeting Tech for the recent sex-ed event, which he said included inappropriate objects.
“We’re talking battery-operated devices, uh, devices — they were sex toys. I’ll just say it; that’s what they were. And now folks at the university are trying to defend that as freedom of speech. Well, what if a parent on the grounds of an institution that is funded by taxpayer dollars, in a state that is predominately conservative, what if a parent had their senior, walking across the campus trying to figure out if whether or not that’s where they wanted to go to school and that’s what they’re presented with that day? It’s unprofessional. It’s bad judgment,” Drown stated.
Russellville Mayor Randy Horton came to show support for ATU. “Around town, everybody knows that our fortunes and the university’s fortunes, they’re inextricably tied together. Everything that happens up there concerns us. Best estimate we can come with [is that] they influence 25 percent of our total local economy, so obviously they’re a big deal. … And we’re concerned about the collateral damage that sometimes happens when you make a ruling on something …” He said similar departments at other universities around the state weren’t in threat of defunding. “We’re not even discussing them. We’re strictly dealing with Arkansas Tech,” Horton said.
ATU had a fall 2016 enrollment of 9,853. Russellville’s estimated 2013 population was 28,533.
Horton also defended the Department of Diversity and Inclusion itself, noting that its mission went far beyond LGBTQ issues. In recent years, he said, “the big issue before DDI was race, because of all the stuff going on across the United States, and they played a role in several public meetings that we had to address that issue and allay fears or concerns that our African-American and Hispanic populations had. So to defund all of the other items that they support because of this one event — to me it doesn’t seem totally logical. … Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
The department also plays a major role in assisting international students, he said. “I have a niece by marriage now who moved here from China. When she decided to get her Masters degree at Arkansas Tech, there’s a big international student population at the university. … DDI makes them feel comfortable and welcome and helps them deal with adjusting to different issues …. If we defund the department, we’re going to throw that out.”
“If we start here, what’s the next step? Are we going to defund the entire university?” he asked. He said he hasn’t talked to Reps. Drown or Bentley, but that he had a “long conversation with Sen. Standridge recently. “I don’t think either one of us changed our mind.”
Asked whether he received complaints from constituents about Spectrum’s sex-ed event, Horton said that he had not received “one statement by phone or email in person” before he delivered a TV interview last night in response to the action by legislators. (Today, the emails have been coming in, he said.)