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The University Of Tennessee’s Pronoun Problems Indict Higher Education


The University of Tennessee managed to attract national attention last week that it surely didn’t want. A university Web page (cached version here) hosted by the institution’s Pride Center that falls under the Office of Diversity and Inclusion counseled students via a handy chart to use “gender neutral pronouns.”

To make everyone feel included, students should use “xe” instead of “he” and “she,” and “hir” and “zir” instead of “her” and “him.” One student named Mandy attending an event celebrating the publication of the chart introduced “xymself” this way: “Hi. I’m Mandy. Xe.”

Tennessee politicians were up in arms, and vowed to address this matter when the legislature sits again in January if the university had not already done so. The university has as of Tuesday removed the Web site and strained to explain yet again that while it had not mandated that students use gender-neutral pronouns nevertheless the reputation of the university was being harmed by the confusion over the issue. It is still quite possible that the legislature will hold hearings to investigate the matter.

As an alumnus of UT, I’m embarrassed; as a college English major, I’m outraged. One wonders if the UT English department was consulted. Maybe they have drunk deeply from the well of political correctness and aren’t bothered by this, but they should at least have objected to the chart’s assertion that “they,” “them,” and “theirs” are appropriately used as singular pronouns. No, they are not.

It’s easy to focus on the absurdity and dismiss it all as eggheads just doing what they do, but there are three stories here worthy of attention from students and parents who pay tuition and donors who contribute to universities. One is, of course, about a foolish idea concocted by the kind of bureaucrats university departments of education produce. Another story is about the ability of higher education to waste resources even when it is undergoing tremendous fiscal strains. There’s a third story about the lack of leadership on campuses, when the last thing universities need is another reason for the public and their donors to question their relevance and value.

The Educators Who Emote Instead of Educate

Having worked on several campuses as an administrator and professor, I’m familiar with the kind of thinking that can emanate from some education departments, and in particular from offices of diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion. These offices began to appear on campuses about 30 years ago, and now they are standard features in most state schools and in many private ones. It’s de rigueur to have them; no self-respecting institution would dare not have such an office—and besides, government often demands it.

Students are taught that universities are rife with racism, sexism, and exclusion.

So who staffs these offices and what do they do? The staff is usually made up of people who graduate from higher-education administration programs. Such programs often have specialties in inclusion, multicultural education, etc. A review of the curriculum will find benign and even helpful studies in how students from various backgrounds learn differently or how they will adjust to university life, but there is a heavy dose of politics. Think “white privilege,” gender feminism, and increasingly a focus on LGBTQ theory.

Students are taught that universities are rife with racism, sexism, and exclusion. The curriculum mirrors the research published in the journals and discussed at conferences. The solution to these problems is always for universities to hire more properly trained personnel to battle against the “isms.” Importantly, those officials also hold mandatory seminars for the faculty and staff so they can be on guard and help make campuses more inclusive.

Changing Language Changes Society

How valuable all these efforts are is subject to debate—although not on campus, because dissenting makes you suspect. Remember what happened to former Harvard University President Larry Summers when he foolishly tried to discuss ideas on a university campus? But every now and then we hear stories like the one coming out of Knoxville that allow us to speculate that these bureaucrats might not have enough to do, or more likely they are eager to get on with the real agenda: to fundamentally transform society via the institutions of higher education.

I doubt anyone who pays tuition or donates to UT wants to fund bureaucrats whose job it is to encourage students to stop saying ‘him’ and start saying ‘zim.’

An ideal way to do that is to change the very words and meanings of the English language so as to obliterate tradition and cultural artifacts that offend them. It strains credulity to argue that all the UT Pride Center wanted to do was make students feel more comfortable with each other. Their academic literature and other public discourse belie that. This is what they do, even if it comes off as absurd to everyone else.

Another story is the waste of resources. I doubt anyone who pays tuition or donates to UT wants to fund bureaucrats whose job it is to encourage students to stop saying “him” and start saying “zim.” I would even say that most faculty and staff would prefer to have a raise than to see the university fund offices to come up with such agendas. Higher education has enough problems today with record student indebtedness, cutbacks of government subsidies, and public questioning of the true value of a college degree without appearing to be out-of-touch spendthrifts.

Their Cluelessness Is a Big Clue

Finally, this is a story of a lack of leadership, and this is the root of the problem. This story would not exist if University of Tennessee officials were responsibly governing the institution.

This story would not exist if University of Tennessee officials were responsibly governing the institution.

We can debate if the office that produced the gender-neutral pronoun chart should even exist, or at least how large and well-staffed and -funded it should be given the real mission of a university and the economic times we live in. But what should not be up for debate is whether this office should be free to publish policy suggestions so absurd and damaging to the university’s reputation.

It won’t do to raise the “academic freedom” defense. That applies only to faculty members in their capacity as faculty members when they are engaged in research and teaching in their fields of expertise. The Pride Center and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion fall under the president and chancellor, and they in turn are responsible to the board. The board is responsible to the state and to the public, since UT is a land-grant institution of higher learning. Eventually, they are going to have to deal with the messes their employees create.

But what was the initial response from UT officials when the predictable reaction arose from the public and the legislature? The vice chancellor overseeing the Office of Diversity and Inclusion seemed at first to be perplexed over the reaction: “I don’t understand what the big deal is,” [Vice Chancellor Rickey] Hall said. “We’re trying to make people feel included. We are a campus that is committed to diversity and inclusion.” He added, “We want [students] to be leaders. And to be leaders, they’re going to have to work across differences, all kinds of differences.”

The Higher Education Feudal System

But after a couple of days of heat and probably some urgent meetings between him and the rest of the administration (and maybe some phone calls from Nashville?), Hall offered a statement on his official website that was more measured but still defensive of his office’s effort.

Can anyone imagine a corporation operating with such an ‘autonomy principle’ and remaining solvent?

Without dealing with the substance—asking students to change the very language they speak in order to bow to revolutionary cultural norms demanded by a tiny slice of voices in the public square—Hall kept insisting that he was just trying to help students negotiate the changed real world. I cringe at the thought of my fellow alums going out onto job interviews with UT printed on their resumes and asking the interviewer, “Shall I call you xe?” or “Please call me xe.”

But what is most revealing is, when another official weighed in to mitigate the crisis (only in my mind and I imagine in the mind of the General Assembly), it made it worse. Said Vice Chancellor for Communications Margie Nichols, “If it was [sic] a policy, it would have been discussed and vetted through our vice chancellors and discussed with the chancellor. But this did not rise to that level. We are a university and our colleges and departments have a lot of autonomy. They develop many newsletters that do not require the approval of the administration.”

Well, at least Nichols has identified the problem for us even though she (or xe) thinks that she’s offered a defense. She has not offered a defense but rather indicted the university’s system of governance—and that system is common among our country’s universities. Departments, divisions, and offices operate like fiefdoms, and if the issues they deal with are “protected” in a de facto sense by political correctness, they are basically left alone to do what they deem to be right in their own eyes.

Can anyone imagine a corporation operating with such an “autonomy principle” and remaining solvent? No, because the boards of corporations demand attention to fundamental goals, brand value, and fiscal health. They also expect managers to keep everyone in line and on task.

College Trustees Need to Hold Presidents Accountable

But boards of universities and colleges, both public and private, are often detached and treated like window-dressing. Only when issues like this one at UT arise do they get exercised, and scratch their heads wondering how it all happened.

Only when board members take their jobs seriously and do a little challenging and exploring themselves will they be able to bring rational governance to the institution.

It happened because they are not paying attention, not holding administrators accountable, and not demanding sound governance on campuses. Too often they are content with the reasoning, “I know that is how you run your bank/corporation/business, but we have academics here and they need freedom to explore and challenge.” Such an attitude gets you and your beloved institution—for many board members their alma mater—embarrassment and ridicule.

Only when board members take their jobs seriously and engage with the institution and do a little challenging and exploring themselves will they be able to bring rational governance to the institution. They should hold presidents and chancellors accountable and ask basic questions, such as, “Are you in control of your employees or not?” “Is the overall health and success of the institution your goal, or is it to make every fiefdom happy?” “Are you safeguarding the reputation of the university and spending its money wisely for the purposes it was chartered? Because that is what we are holding you to, not how many offices feel autonomous and validated according to their own objectives.”

So we should make no mistake about the import of this story coming out of Knoxville, a story that could have emanated from any number of campuses across the country. This is not simply a story about political correctness run amok, nor is it a story simply about waste of resources during difficult economic times for higher education. It is about a lack of leadership and control of the institution by the duly appointed authorities. I hope it is a wake-up call for not only UT but higher education generally. The constituency of taxpayers, tuition-payers, and donors is watching, and they are not amused.