published Saturday, February 15th, 2014

UT president details Sex Week concerns

Dr. Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee, talks to reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in this 2013 file photo.
Dr. Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee, talks to reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in this 2013 file photo.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Staring down pending legislation that could limit — or even eliminate — how the University of Tennessee distributes its student activity fees for campus speakers, President Joe DiPietro expressed concern in a statewide email to employees.

DiPietro, in a nearly 400-word memo, wrote Wednesday that he supports the right for students and staff to bring various speakers to campus as a First Amendment issue, but he also cautioned organizers to "be mindful of the diverse opinions."

"Great universities have exchanges of ideas, and we should be able to do that to further the education of our students as well as our research," DiPietro said in an interview Wednesday morning, prior to sending the memo to staff and faculty. "It's the topic that's controversial."

The legislation followed the announcement of the second annual Sex Week at UT, March 2-7. The event ranges from light-hearted fare such as an aphrodisiac cooking class, drag show and condom scavenger hunt, to more thoughtful discussions on sex and politics, sex and alcohol, the ethics of pornography, and sexual assault.

Last year, funds donated by academic departments were revoked when state legislators expressed outrage. Now, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, has introduced a bill, SB1608, that would allocate speaker fees based on the membership size of student organizations requesting the funding. A second bill, SB2493, sponsored by Campfield and Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, would eliminate funds for speakers.

There is also a pending House joint resolution, co-signed by more than a third of the chamber, that condemns the school's administration for allowing the event to take place.

DiPietro said the university has received a lot of feedback from not only the Legislature, but also students, parents and Tennessee residents -- both in favor and against the Sex Week events.

"If we're open to all and hostile to none, and we are in a position where we are concerned about not offending anybody, then we do it in an approach that recognizes that everybody's values on a given topic and a given speaker are different and we need to be sensitive to that," DiPietro said.

In that regard, he also said the organizers of Sex Week had been more sensitive this year. "I think if you look at last year's programming compared to this year's programming, some of that has improved," he said.

Contact Megan Boehnke boehnkem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6432.

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