A bill that would ban affirmative action in Tennessee’s colleges and universities stalled in the state legislature Wednesday for the second time in as many weeks. Heeding concerns raised by higher education officials about specific language and unforeseen administrative hurdles, members of the state Senate Education Committee put off voting on the measure.
Sponsored by Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, the “Higher Education Equality Act” would prohibit higher education institutions in the state from “granting preferences based on race, gender or ethnicity” in admissions or hiring decisions. The bill comes as part of a larger effort to end affirmative action policies in the United States led by activist and former University of California regent Ward Connerly.
Connerly, himself an African American, has pushed to enact similar laws and constitutional amendments in several other states.
Speaking in front of the same committee last week, Connerly told state senators that he believed diversity on college campuses is an admirable goal but that it should not be used to justify preferential treatment for women or ethnic minorities.
“You cannot have a different standard for one group of people over another,” Connerly said. “You can’t apply different standards based on those factors no matter how noble you think it is.”
But opponents of the bill, including some state higher education administrators, contend that boosting the number of students from underrepresented groups benefits the student body as a whole.
Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan told lawmakers that federal law already prohibits public universities in the state from basing admissions on race or gender but he expressed concern that the language of the bill is too vague and could impede other efforts to increase diversity like outreach and college-preparedness programs aimed at specific groups.
“We are very underrepresented, in terms of our system, with black males, suggesting that perhaps it would be appropriate to have some type of outreach,” Morgan said. “Simply put we have to do better with students that, historically, we haven’t done that well with. And I fear that this bill, particularly as it’s drafted, would significantly raise questions about whether or not we could do those kinds of interventions.”
On Wednesday, representatives of the higher education community again argued that “preference” is overly vague and could pose practical challenges for school administrators.
Anthony Haynes with the University of Tennessee’s Office of Government Relations told committee members he worries the law could open the door to an increase in lawsuits from rejected applicants and would saddle administrators with “a burden of proof on every single admissions decision.”
“To have a law on the books that loosely or lacks definition of ‘preference’” Haynes said, “is like a lawyer’s dream come true.”
Those concerns were enough to convince lawmakers they needed more time meet and consider potential ramifications. The committee will bring the bill up for consideration again next week.