Legislators seek to defund ATU Diversity Department, reaction to ‘Sex on the Lawn’ event

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,226 views 

Eight legislators are attempting to defund Arkansas Tech University’s Department of Diversity and Inclusion after receiving complaints about its actions, including a sex education event one legislator says included a display of sex toys but which the college says was “a health fair-style student event.”

An amendment to House Bill 1213 would reduce the college’s funding by $155,000 and would prohibit funding to the department. The amendment is expected to be considered at a meeting of the Joint Budget Committee’s Special Language Subcommittee Thursday at 8 a.m.

Rep. Trevor Drown, R-Dover, said eight representatives and senators who represent the River Valley area or are ATU alumni are involved in the funding dispute. He said they had discussed three options: cutting all funds to the university, reducing the president’s salary by $100,000, or cutting the $155,000 going to the Department of Diversity and Inclusion. Instead, that money would go to scholarships for minority students studying education, engineering, nursing, agriculture and information technology.

According to Sam Strasner, ATUs director of university marketing and communication, the department was created in 2015 to “promote a diverse, inclusive campus climate for all students, advocate for underrepresented students, provide educational trainings for the entire campus and celebrate the diverse cultures within our community of learners.”

Drown said the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was “Sex on the Lawn,” a recent event organized by the LGBTQ student group Spectrum that the group says on its Facebook page gives students “time to research a variety of topics dealing with all-inclusive safe sex, healthy relationships, sexual orientations and gender identities.” ATU’s Strasner said Sex on the Lawn was “a health fair-style student event during which students provided information about such topics as unplanned pregnancy prevention, sexually transmitted disease prevention, sexual assault resources, consent and healthy relationships to their peers. This was the third consecutive year in which the event took place.”

Pictures on the Facebook page show tables offering free HIV screenings, information about the consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, information about asexuality and pizza. Drown said a constituent sent a screen capture showing sex toys on display.

“They try to say that this was a sex education event. I’m sorry, that’s not sex education that we traditionally think about,” he said.

Drown said local legislators have received dozens of complaints for at least two years from students, parents, faculty, staff and area constituents about the university and particularly about that department.

“Everything here is constituent driven. We’ve literally sat and have met with the president at least six times in the last two years, two-and-a-half years, and we’ve met with different board members at least on three occasions, and the end state is always the same: You need to come back to the center, and you need to make our phones stop ringing,” he said.

ATU President Dr. Robin Bowen released a statement saying she was “dismayed, but not discouraged.”

“Since it was created in 2015, the Department of Diversity and Inclusion (DDI) has served as a valuable resource for our campus. Seven registered student organizations work in partnership with DDI to offer programming that enriches the university experience for all students and generates worthwhile dialogue. Just as is the case on virtually every other college and university campus in the United States, the Arkansas Tech University office devoted to reaching underrepresented populations serves an important student retention function. To put it in the simplest terms, doing away with the Department of Diversity and Inclusion would limit opportunities for higher education attainment, and that is wrong. We will work with legislators to ensure they understand the importance of such offices not only at Arkansas Tech University, but at universities and colleges throughout our state.”