Mises Wire

Unsuccessful DEI Efforts Meet Legislative Opposition in Tennessee

The Tennessee Board of Regents (TBOR) promoted an initiative in 2023 which was meant to better ensure that black males in the state have greater access to higher education, and the support needed to graduate in higher numbers. TBOR referenced a graduation rate which is at least 20 percent lower than the graduation rate of other students. A plan to fight this undesirable metric was implemented by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) in part through the Black Male Success Initiative (BMSI).

Assumedly some members of the commission supported this plan out of good intentions, more specifically, a desire to use the state to benefit the marginalized. Unfortunately, this is not the whole picture. In 2015, the TBOR implemented a 10 year strategic plan, which as of now has been less than a success. In politics, government boards and agencies must prove their necessity to continue receiving funding. This can lead to politicians and regulators creating or pointing to problems which only they can solve. The strategic plan greatly emphasized the need for 55 percent of adult Tennesseans to receive a post-secondary credential by 2025. The results as of 2023 are not ideal.

Enrollment since 2015 is down over 3.5 percent, first-time freshmen numbers are down almost 28 percent, with adult learners down 21 percent. Overall completion and retention rates are mixed, seeing a slight uptick. The only group with major progression is those who are participating in post-secondary programs while incarcerated, but this category of student only makes up about 0.5 percent of all enrolled, thus not significant. The most potentially damning statistic is the fact that the board has not hit its overall completion rate goal since 2018, with the number of graduates increasing only around 7.5 percent from 2015. When combining all nine years measured so far, the board is still over five percent behind its target.

It was obvious by 2021 that not all the goals set were going to be met unless there were specific changes made. The board then resorted to targeting a group of Tennesseans which have traditionally completed post-secondary studies at a lower rate when compared to other students. The TBOR explains in its findings that black male student enrollment and retainment numbers have decreased every year, necessitating its focus on this demographic. Rather than considering that young people around the country have begun to question the value of post-secondary education, these all-knowing committee members have predictably resorted to blaming race disparities and questioning the capabilities of black students.

The TBOR has pointed to a range of factors which it perceives to be the cause of this disparity. Some of these factors seem to be part of the story, while others are clearly nonsensical. One such example is a lack of “Institutional Fit and Belonging,” explaining that many black male students simply do not feel as though they belong at institutions of higher education. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed discrimination at institutions of education, and any special attempts to make certain groups feel more welcome have the danger of discriminating against other groups. The idea that a black male student needs to feel welcome, or belong to succeed academically is put to rest when considering just how well immigrant students do in higher education settings. Leaving everything they know, often coming from a non-ideal financial situation, and not seeing leadership who look like them, students holding a F-1 visa regularly outperform their peers.

After the board determined which factors restricted black male enrollment and success in post-secondary education, it created an action plan. The primary actionable goal of the BMSI is to identify successful practices and create a state-wide strategy. There are a couple of underlying issues with this initiative. The findings of the board showed that one factor to black males under-performing is that so few members of faculty and the community look like them, potentially necessitating the hiring or accepting of staff and students based primarily on race. Most Americans oppose college administrators allowing racial preference to impact the admissions process. Additionally, Tennessee HB 1376, passed in July of 2023, prohibited college administrators from undermining the principles of merit and excellence in admissions, and also emphasized intellectual diversity over ethnic diversity.

The plan implemented by the TBOR not only had the strong potential to violate HB 1376, but also runs into conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, where the 6-3 ruling greatly limited race as a determining factor in admissions. The TBOR must come to terms with such legislation while it attempts to prove itself relevant by meeting the goals of its strategic plan. One hopes the board members will consider the value of individualism over collectivism in higher education while they are at it.

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