NASHVILLE Tenn. — The sponsor of a proposal to eliminate affirmative action initiatives from higher education institutions in Tennessee said fellow Republicans who contributed to the failure of his bill on Wednesday could face repercussions in next year’s election.
The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Summerville of Dickson was defeated in the Senate Education Committee. Four members of the Republican-majority committee voted for the measure, two voted against it and three abstained.
“Next year … a third of the Senate, including me, will be up for re-election and this is going to be an issue in the primaries,” Summerville said.
“Every Republican with a primary opponent will have to answer for the vote on this bill, and why they believe some Americans aren’t ready for equal treatment.”
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.”
For instance, the measure sought to prohibit institutions from setting aside 10 percent of their contracts for minority-owned businesses.
Committee member Rusty Crowe said he’s against giving preference to certain students, but said he decided to pass because of pending litigation involving similar legislation at another university.
“I didn’t want to vote no, because I don’t believe we should give preference,” said the Johnson City Republican, adding that he feels comfortable explaining his decision to his constituents. “I didn’t want to vote yes because … I didn’t feel comfortable that we really had a handle on what does preference mean.”
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 ruling that the voter-approved mandate was unconstitutional.
In the case of the Tennessee proposal, higher education officials in particular said the term “preference” was vaguely defined and could harm programs designed to target groups of students institutions may be trying to recruit.
“Anything that removes from our toolbox things that we think can make a difference in terms of student success, we’re very apprehensive about,” said Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan. “And we were afraid that in that broad definition of granting preference that would in fact interfere with our ability to do what we know can help students be successful.”
Summerville blamed higher education officials for the death of his proposal.
“They lobbied to kill this bill and they succeeded,” he said after the vote.
The companion bill was delayed in the House Education Subcommittee earlier this week. Summerville said he doesn’t plan to revive the legislation this session.
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