- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro pushed back against recent criticisms of the school, telling UT supporters that “the long arm of the government” is reaching further and further into university matters.

DiPietro made his case Tuesday at St. Thomas West Hospital in the school’s first-ever live State of the University address. He said the school is thriving and is stronger in many ways than even a decade ago.

The address comes as the school faces challenges on a number of fronts, including a federal lawsuit filed last week that accused UT of fostering a culture that didn’t do enough to discourage sexual assaults.

School officials have adamantly denied the suit’s allegations, and DiPietro did not directly address it in his remarks. But he did discuss the school in regards to diversity, climate, culture and a federal law that bans gender discrimination.

Before the lawsuit, some university officials had complained that the school was under attack by the governor and the legislature. Gov. Bill Haslam is working toward a plan that would outsource the management of some campus facilities - a move that opponents said would cost jobs and lower the quality of services. And there are bills pending in the legislature that would defund UT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and freeze tuition.

The university president said government “is reaching further and further and further into the operations of UT in matters such as our governance and structure, policy decisions, maintenance of our facilities and even programs designed to support our students and campus communities.”

“We have to be vigilant when it comes to protecting our position on issues like these,” DiPietro said. “Otherwise, we jeopardize our long-term ability to ensure that decisions about our university are made by those who know our communities best.”

DiPietro vowed the school would fight the bill to freeze tuition, saying it’s rooted in the notion that UT salaries are the cause of higher costs. He said the school has been working hard to minimize tuition increases but has a salary gap of $84 million and needs to attract the best and brightest workers.

The president also defended the school’s efforts at inclusion on campus, saying they were educating students to work in a global and diverse workforce. The school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion enraged some Republican lawmakers who said it was trying to eliminate Christianity from the holidays after suggesting all religious references be stricken from holiday parties and gatherings. Lawmakers said the office embarrassed the school after news stories across the country reported on the office’s recommendation that only gender-neutral pronouns be used for people.

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