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Front Page - Friday, April 20, 2018

View from the Hill: Sex Week seems tame compared to Legislature's antics

Why should UT Knoxville be limited to its annual Sex Week when Tennessee legislators are celebrating year-round?

Based on the scurrilous reports published in these parts over the last couple of years, state legislators are doing more than collecting per diems in Nashville, and there’s plenty of evidence to prove it.

One representative was ousted for hitting on nearly every woman at Legislative Plaza, another was sent packing after only two weeks for allegedly grabbing a woman in a restroom and another told to leave for reportedly hitting on the high school girls’ basketball players he coached 30 years ago. He’s refusing to go.

Clearly, we aren’t talking about candidates for divinity school. And those are just the publicized cases.

But, by God, when it comes time for students and faculty at UT to try to have a frank discussion about sex, the state’s elected leaders aren’t going to stand for it.

So, who gets hammered? Those poor souls on the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees who didn’t do enough to tamp down on Sex Week, gender neutral pronouns and invitations to holiday parties that seemed to downplay the importance of Christmas.

They didn’t have a prayer of winning legislative confirmation to the revamped UT Board of Trustees.

One of Gov. Bill Haslam’s main initiatives, the UT FOCUS Act, reduces the board to 12 from 27 members and does away with voting faculty and student members, while incorporating advisory councils on the UT system’s four main campuses. (Of course, those professors and students can’t stop thinking about sex long enough to cast a decent vote.)

It passed, making it through the House with the bare minimum 51 votes.

Yet five of the governor’s 10 nominees didn’t cut it with the Senate Education Committee, chaired by that august body’s leading scold, Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from rural Somerville in southwest Tennessee.

Raja Jubran, vice chair of the current UT Board of Trustees, opted out before hearings even started last week, probably not wanting to face the scorn of Tennessee’s leading do-gooders. He sits in as chairman for most board meetings because Haslam, the official chair, rarely attends.

Others who got cut were:

-- Current board member Brad Lampley, a former Tennessee Volunteers football player and lobbyist from Nashville law firm Adams and Reese

-- Melvin Malone, a lobbyist from Butler Snow LLP and former special Tennessee Supreme Court Justice

-- Current board member Sharon Pryse, CEO and founder of The Trust Company

-- Bill Evans, former director and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Those who made the cut were:

-- John Compton, a former Pepsi Co. president who also ran the Haslams’ company, Pilot Flying J, for a short period

-- Kara Lawson, former Lady Vol and basketball TV analyst for ESPN and the Washington Wizards

-- Donnie Smith, former president and CEO of Tyson Foods

-- Kim White, president and CEO of River City Company

-- Bill Rhodes, chairman, president and CEO of AutoZone.

Senate leaders said they wanted to remove “retreads” and lobbyists from the board, and Majority Leader Mark Norris pointed out they’d already started taking lobbyists off of boards and commissions several years ago.

“That had been established, and this was a step backwards in that sense,” says Norris, a U.S. District Court nominee from Collierville in Shelby County.

At the outset of Senate confirmation hearings, though, Gresham and other lawmakers focused not on lobbyist work but on Sex Week and the board’s inability to rein it in, pointing toward reams of emails, letters and phone calls they received from constituents angry about the sexual circus on Rocky Top.

Gresham argued that human sexuality is worthy of being studied at the university, but she pointedly said Sex Week is “not education” and instead “seeks nothing more than to glorify depravity” and drag UT through the “trash,” making Tennessee and the university a “national embarrassment.” (“Drag” might not be such a good word in this case.)

Sen. Joey Hensley echoed Gresham’s sentiments and, during questioning of the candidates, asked them why they hadn’t done anything about Sex Week when the Legislature had asked them to take care of it.

Lampley, as the lawmakers should know, pointed out the Board of Trustees can only go so far, on the advice of its attorney, because of free speech and the fact Sex Week is no longer paid for by the university but by students.

Then again, Hensley, a family physician, isn’t exactly the poster boy for puritanical propriety, having been married four times, and at one point enjoying a fling with his second cousin, who was a patient and employee at his Hohenwald practice, according to a 2017 Nashville Scene report.

Nobody brought up that little ditty during the grilling of trustees. Maybe they thought it was beside the point, but at the very least, Hensley should have made a public statement acknowledging his actions before participating in this public castigation.

How we got here

The lineup for UT-K’s 2018 Sex Week, if nothing else, is designed for shock value, including presentations such as Queer History in Cinema, Gender Smackdown, Queer Theory 101, Trans Convo Starter Pack, Trans Sex Positivity, (S)exploration Destination, History of Erotic Art, CSI: My Period, Masturbation Nation, Butt Stuff 2.0: The Pegging, Science of Abortion, Toys R Sex and a couple others that could make the most open-minded a little queasy.

Yet several professors on the event’s website say they feel it’s important to support the week-long event because of the need for young people to discuss sexuality in order to take greater control of their bodies. One wonders if the content can match the titles.

A look at the 2017 lineup shows Sex Week Cabaret, “a night of sensual, silly and sultry acts performed by the Dirty Dozen,” discussion on the “gendered structure of stripping, aiming to radically expand social views on strippers,” talks on gender theory, how to negotiate healthy relationships when diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, the relationship between religion and sexuality, and on and on.

With all of that stuff on the menu, it’s little wonder parents and UT graduates have been calling, writing and raising hell with legislators for six years.

They’d rather return to the day when students went up to The Hill, got drunker than Cooter Brown every night, had unprotected sex as often as they could and wound up flunking out after the second quarter – all without Sex Week, of course – and without parents finding out until the grades showed up and the tuition bills were due.

More than likely, those weird titles are intended to get people to show up. And, truth be told, homosexuality and transgender activity is more widespread among millennials than it was 30 years ago, which is why the Legislature continually tries to push these people back into the closet with oddly worded legislation designed to keep gay couples from adopting or having kids and pushing Ziggy Stardust-type high schoolers into unfriendly locker rooms. Maybe these people are hurting job recruitment.

Where do go from here?

Norris and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally agree the Board of Trustees has “limits” on dealing with situations such as Sex Week. But as Norris points out, the board could have done more in terms of taking a public stand.

“We’re several more steps removed than that board, and it would be nice to have board members who would stand up and take a position about what’s happening. If they support it, let us know. But if they find it abhorrent, say so and do something,” Norris adds.

McNally and other senators, though, say the UT board’s problems don’t have anything to do with academics, building projects or the university’s relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Instead, it’s little things such as Sex Week, allowing neo-Nazis to speak on campus and the conflagration of a football coaching search. That debacle led to the trashing of Ohio State’s Greg Schiano for allegedly having knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assaults of boys at Penn State years ago, and, finally, the suspension and $2.5 million buyout of former athletic director John Currie.

“We don’t want to micromanage the institution,” McNally explains. “But at the same time, since we do provide a large percentage of the funding, we want to make sure the goals of the university are aligned with the goals of the people of the state of Tennessee.”

The goals of many Tennesseans do include going to Knoxville seven Saturdays a year and getting roaring drunk, trying to get laid and then ripping the coach, which sound about like the goals of some legislators.

The longest-tenured member of the Legislature, McNally nearly breaks into a laugh when asked how the Senate can hold trustees to such a standard when the Legislature’s members haven’t been exactly pure over the years.

In droll McNally fashion, he puts a grin away long enough to say, “I think that probably the programs you saw on Sex Week seemed to border on the extreme, and I think that our goals are to be better in that area, and that should be both with the university as well as the Legislature.”

Agreed, because nobody’s perfect.

Oddly enough, House Majority Leader Glen “Mr. Conservative” Casada felt the Senate overstepped its bounds by booting current trustees and scaring off another. Incidentally, a House Education committee approved the nominees.

“I would submit that the individuals they want to hold off have nothing to do with (Sex Week). It’s student fees, it’s the students’ money and we just don’t control that,” Casada says. “And so, they’re angry, and I think that’s fair, but they’re angry at the wrong people.”

If Casada accuses Republicans of overstepping their bounds, it’s worth noting.

The analysis

If you want an example of a national embarrassment, the football coaching search would be fair game. Even if it wound up bringing a good coach to Knoxville in Jeremy Pruitt, the former defensive coordinator at Alabama, it alienated nearly every coaching candidate in the country and cost $2.5 million to buy out Currie’s contract. Meanwhile, aren’t they still paying Butch Jones a hefty figure?

For the amount of money and fan support poured into the football program, there’s no excuse for having one of the worst teams in the Southeastern Conference.

But while people still file through the gates of Neyland Stadium for religious rites every fall, much of the ire of legislators lies with Sex Week. It’s just “scandalous,” Gresham says.

No doubt, those presentations could make people uncomfortable. But what’s really scandalous is for people who serve in an elected body filled with lechers, creeps and perverts to cast judgment on a group of students and professors trying to break down sexual walls and stereotypes.

Good grief. Tennessee politicians have no problem aligning themselves with the agenda of President Donald Trump, whatever that may be, while ignoring reports he cavorted with porn stars and paid them hundreds of thousands in hush money. Come to think of it, that could make him a perfect fit to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly and the White House.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald.