NASHVILLE — A proposal to eliminate affirmative action initiatives from higher education institutions in Tennessee slowed in the state Senate on Wednesday after lawmakers and educators said they were uncomfortable with the bill’s language.
Action on the measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Summerville of Dickson, was delayed in the Senate Education Committee for a week. The companion bill has been assigned to the House Education Subcommittee.
As written, the legislation would prohibit colleges and universities from granting preference “based on race, gender or ethnicity … to any student or employee of the public institution of higher education or any person with whom the public institution of higher education contracts.”
Committee Chairwoman Delores Gresham suggested the sponsor and the committee’s legal staff get together to clarify the term “preference.”
One concern is that the current bill could run afoul of federal law and cost the state funding because it doesn’t contain specific provisions, such as pertaining to gender.
“I want to vote on this but I want to vote on something that works,” said Sen. Rusty Crowe, a committee member and Johnson City Republican. “I don’t think it would hurt to tweak this so that we say what we mean.”
Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan was among the higher education officials who voiced concerns to the panel.
“The language as written leaves an awful lot of questions,” he said after the meeting. “What does it mean when you say ‘preference”’?
During the meeting, the panel heard testimony from Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento, Calif., a nonprofit organization that advocates for equal treatment of citizens. Connerly told the panel about constitutional amendments addressing the affirmative action issue that had been approved in other states and assured lawmakers they could craft a bill that would be within federal guidelines.
“There are ways to do this without losing federal money,” he said.
Connerly told The Associated Press earlier Wednesday that he’s against affirmative action because he believes it “marginalizes people.”
“I learned that no matter how accomplished certain people are, people who look like me, there’s still an attitude on the part of some that we’re not quite good enough; that we’re not quite equal,” said Connerly, who served on the California Board of Regents for 12 years.
Before adjourning the meeting, Gresham, a retired Marine, testified about how offended she was for being singled out for being a female lieutenant colonel and Hispanic.
“I was … to be honored because I was a Hispanic woman lieutenant colonel,” recalled the Somerville Republican. “Not because of my contribution to society … but because of the nature of my existence, as if I had overcome a disease. So when people talk about preferential treatment, it means that you can’t handle the work. We have got to do something special for you, because obviously you can’t handle the work.”
Since a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision, universities have been allowed to use racial preferences if they choose, though they are not compelled to do so. Michigan, Washington, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, California and Florida have banned racial preferences in admissions. Leading public universities in Texas and Georgia use a race-neutral system, though the University of Texas has maintained some use of affirmative action.
The high court recently heard arguments in a case that could change that precedent — a rejected white applicant is suing the University of Texas.
The ruling that ended Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in college admissions was put on hold last year until the high court decides to hear an appeal by the state’s attorney general. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati issued an order staying its Nov. 15, 2013 ruling that the voter-approved mandate was unconstitutional.